In fourth grade my parents sent me off to private school thinking it would be the best educational setting for my curious mind. But instead of becoming acquainted with Shakespeare, King, Lincoln and Ghandi, I became “fast friends” with the bullies who would wait for me by the front steps in order to shout disparaging remarks about my Indian heritage, and who were even creative enough to make fun of the old brown station wagon my parents brought me to school in.
Bullying back then was commonplace, something to be endured, an infection that would settle in your body, growing insidiously like mold in the walls, that would then spread rapidly to any available host. Because bullying begets bullying.
To be fair, I spent some time in the bullying camp. It felt good to be included. It felt good to be part of the vocal majority, the people with power. But I’m hardly proud of those days. I might not be able to go back in time and change my behavior, but I can do my best to teach my own kids right from wrong.
But let’s play the devil’s advocate game: Bullying is something that every child needs to go through. It makes them tougher. It teaches empathy. It’s just part of life. To which I would say, really? Does it really make them tougher? Or does it just make them meaner, and more apt to bully themselves? And at what age do the eventual lessons take hold? Does a 7-year-old really learn something from being picked on?
Today, our general tolerance of bullying has changed. I became aware of this I when one of my children — a kindergartener at the time — had a serious issue with some sixth graders on the bus. I immediately took the problem to the principal of the school. And he told me, “You know the schools have a no-tolerance policy.” He went on to explain the school’s stance on the issue of bullying, and swiftly took care of the problem. I was impressed, but more importantly, relieved that this wouldn’t become an ongoing issue.
But I can’t help wonder if our society has truly changed when it comes to bullying. Maybe the schools have altered their tune, but I’m not so sure we have collectively. There are some people who still blame the victim. “She shouldn’t have transferred schools.” “He shouldn’t have tried to be friends with those kids.” But many take the path of “no comment” because it’s too uncomfortable for them to think about, or get involved with. Because all of us fear being ostracized. We all want to be part of the “in group” no matter what age we are. Side with the victim, and then possibly become a victim yourself. No thank you.
But bullying isn’t only happening in schools — it’s everywhere. On playdates. On ballfields. In the neighborhood. At work. And that’s where it gets all gray and fuzzy, because we live in a competitive society. The world’s population is growing, which means the pie is shrinking. Parents especially fear this inevitable change, so sometimes inappropriate behavior is labeled as necessary competitive drive rather than what it really is: bullying.
And I’ll be frank. I’m as competitive as the rest. I don’t believe we should pretend that everyone is equally competent at all things when they’re not. Not every kid is good at sports. Some kids have trouble with reading. Others have trouble with math. Some kids move slowly. And some can’t slow their bodies down enough to follow directions.
But I also believe every child should have a chance to find something they’re good at. They should be given every opportunity possible to explore many avenues, and eventually get to taste at least a little piece of the pie. Because throwing the weak under the bus only makes our moral fiber weaker, which inevitably reflects on who we are as a society and as individuals.
As parents it’s hard to watch or hear about your kid being bullied or ostracized, especially as you feel the heat of anger rise from your toes, progress slowly up your spine, and finally settle at the base of your neck. But the rational part of you understands that the bullies are typically just kids trying to figure out where they fit in the world too. It’s a very complicated issue for sure.
I often think about those bullies at my old school and wonder if they are looking back at their past indiscretions as I am, and wondering why they behaved the way they behaved. Because being a parent will do that to you. It undresses you, exposes you, and makes you take a hard look at yourself. But then, gloriously it forgives, and it provides a chance to “make it all good.” Because the teachable moments are there every day, we just have to be aware enough to see them.
Saelen Ghose is a freelance writer and creative director for www.theguysperspective.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @saelenghose.