Monday, October 11, 2010

Bullying—More Than Smoke

In today's edition of Small Town Newspaper:

It’s been said that bullying is nothing more than smoke, a screen with no substance, but it can be so much more than mere smoke and so often signifies actual fire. It’s these serious life-and-death consequences of bullying that have brought on a new anti-bullying campaign led by Cartoon Network and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The multi-faceted program is titled “Stop Bullying: Speak Up,” and it is designed to reach the 75 percent of students who witness bullying in its various forms.

If allowed to torment people unchecked, bullies are more likely to be convicted of crimes as adults and to continue their pattern of aggression in the workplace, if they manage to hold down a job at all. Often being from harsh homes, they tend to carry their domineering tendencies into their own homes and to perpetuate the cycle through their own children.

Without adult intervention, their victims are more likely to skip school or to become physically ill or psychologically damaged, and they are more likely to drink and even become aggressive themselves. Students who are persistently bullied are also more likely to commit suicide. According to the authors of “Bullycide: Death at Playtime,” a child commits suicide as a response to being bullied every half hour, inspiring the new term, “bullycide.” In just the last few weeks, in fact, teenagers in New Jersey and California have killed themselves to escape the abuse, adding their names to a growing number of our young people who have chosen the same out.

I used to think bullies were insecure kids who felt small and brought down others in order to make themselves look bigger in front of their peers. But experts now say the opposite is true. A child who bullies his classmates actually thinks very highly of himself and sets out to prove his superiority over his peers by conquering a few of them. He, and sometimes she, looks for easy targets in kids who are smaller in stature or different in appearance—a child who dresses in a unique style, is of an ethnic minority, is less feminine or masculine than the perceived ideal, is overweight or disabled or gay or just has allergies is likely to be bullied.

Amid all of this unhealthy domination, there are bystanders who need help knowing how to respond. In a tip sheet offered by Cartoon Network, children who witness bullying are encouraged to support the victim and to get involved by speaking up. “Whether you’re the one getting bullied or someone who sees it happening, there’s a lot you can do to stop it. But the best thing you can do is speak up,” the sheet reads, and students are told to talk to a trusted adult, someone like a parent or teacher who can intervene.

“Trusted” is the key word here, I believe. In order for children to ask adults for help, they have to be assured the adults will take their concerns seriously and will respond by taking effective action. Kids have been trying to establish a sort of social pecking order for ages, with the strongest and often most popular children being dominant over the weaker and sometimes ostracized ones. And many adults have stood by, as if bullying or being bullied are acceptable rites of passage. They are not, and it’s the responsibility of adults to make that clear.

During the few years when they are under our care, we teach our children academic tools they will need to lead successful lives as adults. They need us to also teach them by word and example how to live and work peaceably together without the ugly traits of dominance and aggression. They need us to teach them these things: even in a culture that seems to applaud brute force, might does not make right; intimidation is no substitute for leadership; and being unique is something to respect, not something to conquer.

In our renewed push to stop bullying, we’re asking kids to trust adults for help, and we need to earn that trust by creating for them a secure atmosphere in which they can ask for help. And when they speak up and point to the smoke, we need to listen and to put out the fire.

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