An apparent high school suicide in our community, attributed to bullying, has emotions running high, and a lot of memories of our own young experiences coming back.
I did some looking around when it was said that the school involved had no policy, and in fact had a “no tattling” policy, so that children were discouraged from reporting. What I found was that there is a state anti-bullying law, a statewide policy, and local policies and programs. I also read a good bit of teacher discussion on “no tattling”, and found that teachers are aware of the need to distinguish between tattling to get someone in trouble, and telling to get someone out of trouble. But I didn’t agree with the approach the laws, policies, and programs seem to be taking. I think we may be emphasizing “fixing” the bullies too much, and strengthening our kids in how to react, too little.
When I was young and harassed, I was repeatedly told “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now, apparently, we are telling children, and each other, indeed, words can hurt us. When I was young, I never quite got what it meant. I could see part of the difference, but the words did hurt. Being excluded hurt. It didn’t help that my mother’s mantra was “What will people think?” I couldn’t wait to get out of my home town, where it seemed hardly anyone understood or liked me.
In my twenties, I read Albert Ellis’s book A Guide to Rational Living, which includes “Ten Irrational Ideas” which I wrote about here. Putting what he said into practice changed my life. His irrational ideas are things that people tell themselves that make them miserable. The first one is “It is a dire necessity for an adult to be loved or approved by almost everyone for virtually everything he or she does.” Aha! Words hurt because I tell myself they do.
I think we need to be telling our kids – at home, at school, at church, in clubs, on teams – that it not a dire necessity that everyone love or approve you. It is not achievable, and the desire to make it so will make you miserable, possibly suicidal. Much of the harm from even physical and sexual abuse comes from the “awfulizing,” both by the community and the victim. We tell child abuse and rape victims “It’s not your fault, and you are not a bad person because of it.” We need to tell harassment victims “It is not your fault.”
It’s not your problem – it’s their problem – if they don’t like you or say mean things because you are tall, short, black,white, gay, red-headed, cross-eyed, rich, poor, fat, skinny, smart, stupid, or ugly. If it is sticks and stones – physical – report it; that’s not acceptable. If it’s words – consider whether it is something you did, something you can change, that caused it – if it wasn’t – that’s their problem.
Of course, we don’t want to raise kids who are self-righteous, or be that ourselves. Not everything is “their” problem, either. Human society doesn’t work without people considering other people’s needs. If we are inconsiderate ourselves, that’s our problem. Bullying works because of that – we always have to consider if part of what they say is true, or if there is something else we do that makes us a target.
Bullying never goes away. There is a whole literature on bullying in the workplace. At work, as at school and home, it is a tempting way to gain power, and there are grownups as well as children who just gain pleasure from hurting other people. So bringing up children to deal with it is a life skill. It is a life’s work, and the work of our religions, to learn what truly hurts us and others, to examine our consciences and learn what is important to change and what it is important to ignore.