Saturday, October 20, 2012

Childhood Bullying: We All Have a Part in Stopping It

Few of us have lived lives untouched by bullying. Most of us have experienced bullying in childhood, perhaps as the one who was shamed and ostracized by peers, as one who publicly said hurtful things to demean someone or who was physically aggressive towards other children, or as someone who stood by cheering on the bully or even just silently witnessing bullying without speaking up for the victim. In the wake of teen Amanda Todd's suicide along with online documentation of the years of peer bullying and cyber stalking that she experienced, childhood bullying is the topic of the day. It is my hope that, rather than looking for someone to blame for Amanda's very sad death, instead each of us reflect on our own past experiences of bullying and harrassment and indentify what we can do, as individuals, to reduce bullying.

Bullying is complicated and not always easy to recognize. It can masquerade as teasing, indignation about someone else's behaviors that are perceived as inappropriate, or as getting back at someone for a perceived wrong. Often fear is at the heart of it. The bully might have been bullied or abused himself/herself, or feels inadequate in some way. To avoid becoming a bullying victim himself/herself, the bully leads others in victimiizing someone else. Those who stand by silently or egg on the bully often do so in fear that if they speak out, they will become associated with the victim's perceived negative qualities and become targets of bullying themselves.

Intolerance for differences as well is at the heart of bullying. Racism, sexism, and lack of tolerance for sexual preference, disabilities, differences in physical appearance (such as being overweight or dressing differently) can elicit peer bullying. Bullies select victims who can be easily dominated: children who are smaller or weaker, children who are new and without a group of friends to stand up for them, and children who do not have high social status.

I have experienced and witnessed bullying as a child growing up, and have seen my siblings and my own children be bullied. In some cases, I responded appropriately, and in other cases I wish that I had acted differently or more promptly.

I grew up in a very caring and supportive family. However, child rearing practices were different back then, and "teasing" was a constant element of our growing up years. The teasing was not gentle, but malicious and hurtful. Name calling was a central element of it. We called each other mean names to show anger and scorn. These were derived by rhyming our names with an undesirable person in the community, or the similarity of one of our names with an embarrassing TV commercial. Friendships with children of the opposite sex were derided. For example, I was taunted with the refrain, "Gideonloves X!" throughout my childhood. Similarly, one of my brothers was taunted and humiliated using of name of a little girl with whom he was friends when he was three years old. The actual sources of the names for name calling seems trivial now, but the taunts were hurtful at the time, and I think the teasing has had some long term consequences on our self esteem and relationships as adults. As well, because our parents participated in the name calling rather than stopping it, it felt to me as though there was no safety net at home. Finally, the name calling bled over into our school and social lives, and had consequences in our peer groups.

When I was about nine, a new boy started school in my class. I came home and told my Mom about the new boy and confided that I thought he was really nice. This is what initiated the taunt "Gideon loves X!" When my siblings were annoyed with me or wanted to provoke me, they would shout this out, often in front of my school friends. School peers began to take up the refrain, and taunted both me and the boy. I would respond that I didn't like X; I hated him. This went on throughout my elementary school years. Fortunately for me, at school I had many friends and they mobilized to support me. Fortunately, X was also a popular boy with many friends. In those days, "boys chase the girls" was a common school yard activity for preteens. (If they caught us, they would kiss us, and this was considered by the girls to be disgusting.) We turned the game around into girls chase the boys. It would start with one of X's friends shouting "Gideon loves X!" or a similar taunt. Then a gang of girls would chase him and try to kick his ankles, while he tried to run away, and other boys defended him or tried catch us and kiss us.

I realize that this sounds very amusing and innocent, in retrospect. However it has a darker side. In leading a gang of girls and trying to catch X and his friends and kick their ankles, was I being a bully? Or was I defending myself against bullying? X was innocent of any wrongdoing. I engaged in my actions as a form of self defense against the taunts of my peers and siblings. But what impact did it have on X? I have often agonized over this. Later in our teen years, X and I did become good friends, but I don't think I ever explained to him why I was so mean to him when we were younger. I lost touch with him many years ago, but I have heard that he has become quite a bitter person, and his life has not gone that well. X was very bright and talented, with tremendous potential to contribute to the world. Did I, in some small way, impact his self esteem or contribute to the choices he made in life because of the way I treated him? X also struggled with being overweight as a child. Did he believe that I was picking on him because of that? I wish I could turn the clock back, or at least have the chance to explain to him now that I always liked him and to apologize for my hurtful actions.

In other ways in my childhood, I stood up to bullies many times. Because I was the oldest child in my family, I took on the responsibility of protecting my younger siblings from other children. Around age eight, I remember chasing a whole gang of children out of our yard brandishing a ski pole because they were being mean to my little brother and making him cry. A few years later, I used to walk my brother home from school to protect him from a boy who would otherwise follow him out of the school yard and beat him up. My siblings also used to protect me from other children's aggressive acts.

In junior high school, there was a gang of large, violent boys who used to beat up on smaller boys whenever teachers weren't looking. For example, I remember witnessing them stuffing a boy head first into a garbage can. Although I was afraid to intervene directly, my friends and I fetched a teacher, and I also told my parents.

As a parent myself, I did not model or condone cruel teasing in the family. I tried to teach my children to be inclusive and tolerant of people who were different than them, and to provide the opportunity for them to have friends of diverse backgrounds. I encouraged them to stand up for friends who were being teased or bullied and for each other. If I overheard my children's friends say things about peers that were racist or otherwise derogatory, I spoke up rather than listening silently (even though it might have embarrassed my children). When they were bullied themselves (and they were) I tried to make sure they knew that they could tell me about it, and that I would actively support them. I have spoken with the parents of children who bullied my children at school, and with teachers and principals. I have sent children home from my house and told them that they were not welcome to return unless they changed their behavior, and also talked with their parents. I also allowed children who were friends of my children to sleep over at my place many nights and weekends when I suspected that they did not have a safe place to go home to (but also ensuring that their parents knew where they were).

I know that my children experienced incidents of bullying that they did not tell me about, or only told me after it had been going on for quite awhile. Parents cannot protect their children from all bad experiences. It is everyone's responsibility to be aware of the signs of bullying and its potential consequences, and to take action rather than standing by. School personnel can provide bullying awareness programs and create school climates where bullying is not tolerated. Young people can report verbal, physical, and online bullying to parents, teachers, or other responsible adults. Adults can provide good role models to young people, by not engaging in racist acts, physical aggression, demeaning verbal attacks, or consumption of online porn, and by intervening when they see others doing those things. We can vote for parties that have a good record of funding social safety nets like women's transition houses, antipoverty programs, and aboriginal programs, and of providing support and proper funding to schools. We all can make a difference by the daily choices that we make.

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