When I read the Chatterbox post yesterday about the Australian dad who had his children arrested for bullying a younger boy, my first reaction was to feel immense gratitude and admiration for this father. This was the kind of stand every parent of a child who has been the victim of bullying wants to see the other parent take--that dark, unyielding line drawn in the sand; the expression of zero tolerance for any type of bullying, whether it be mental or physical, or both. But then I also started wondering: what prompted those kids to beat up the younger boy? Statistics show over and over again that bullies are created at home; that kids bully out of a deep sense of inadequacy, fear of rejection from their peer group, and sometimes sadness and childhood trauma lie at the heart of a bully's need to reduce others to nothing. I don't want to place the blame for those older kids' actions at the doorstep of their parents. I also know that kids can come from good, loving, solid homes and things can go dreadfully wrong. But I do hope that the parents of those two bullies will provide some measure of support to their own kids, to help them understand what drove them to act that way, so they can work together as a family to heal all the damage that's been done.
Coincidentally, I went to my monthly parenting group meeting on Tuesday and the topic was bullying. We watched a presentation on bullying and talked about some bullying prevention strategies laid out by this acclaimed therapist, who has led workshops on anti-bullying strategies for years now. All of the strategies made sense, intuitively, to me, but many of them were difficult for me to imagine helping L. put into action, as they involved the child learning how to "re-wire" his body language, so that he are no longer sending off signals to habitual bullies looking for prey.
L. has sometimes asked us why he's a target at school; why kids pick on him, and not others. It's hard and painful beyond words to explain this to your own child--in ways that don't reinforce in your child's mind that the bullying is due to some defect of theirs. Maybe it's because he wears glasses (the Australian kids mentioned above picked on their victim because he wore glasses), maybe it's because he uses big words when he talks, maybe it's because he reacts with anger, and therefore he makes himself a more satisfying target. One thing I learned on Tuesday night is that bullies will target their victims because they sense weaknesses like anger and fear in kids who are not in the popular peer group. I also learned that bullies are never at the top of the social ladder at school. The kids in the top peer group don't bully, but the bullies bully as a strategy--albeit a misguided one--to be recognized by this elite peer group at school.
I learned that most bullies start bullying by age two and that by kindergarten, a bully-in-the-making has already developed the ruthless skills necessary to quickly identify potential targets in classmates.
I learned that bullies often bully--not because they enjoy it--but in order get relief for their own unhappiness. We often have the misconception, I learned, that bullies enjoy bullying; instead, bullying reinforces their negative feelings, and causes them to continue targeting others.
I also learned something I hadn't thought about, really, which is that bullies are skilled at making sure grown-ups don't catch them. I often feel angry and frustrated with the teachers and staff at L.'s school for not "catching" bullying and teasing in action, but now I realize that they're not seeing it because the bullies don't intend for them to see it. Bullying, I learned last night, is visible to all the kids at school, but grown-ups are usually blind to it. This is why I firmly believe that in order for us to help bullying in schools end, we have to teach our kids to intervene for others--especially if our kids are in the top peer group at school. To me, it always seemed that bullying had to be obvious, and the means to stop it self-evident. But after sitting through the presentation on Tuesday I realized that every school in our country needs to move beyond mere policies on zero tolerance; they need to make specific efforts to train teachers, staff, and students in not only spotting bullies at a young age, but teaching the importance of peer intervention, and equipping students with specific skills so they won't be targets anymore.