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We’ve been told for years that there is a “bullying epidemic” in our schools. We are meant to believe that the problem is worse now than it was decades ago, which is supposed to justify the exorbitant measures taken to combat it. Many states have even passed anti-bullying laws, only to discover that the laws not only fail to fix the problem but probably make it worse. We have sent armies of psychologists into the schools, with the hope that medicalizing the problem might do the trick if legislating it didn’t work. And if all else fails, we have recourse to anti-bullying PSAs, anti-bullying seminars, anti-bullying websites, anti-bullying posters, and anti-bullying bumper stickers. But there is little evidence that any of these measures have made a significant impact.
Perhaps it is time for us to face a few facts. The first is this: bullying is an inevitable result of the human condition. There is no real reason to think that this ugly aspect of our nature has manifested itself more in recent years than in any other period of human history. Yet it does seem to be the case that bullying is sending kids spiraling into depression, sometimes suicidal depression, at a much higher rate today than in the past. What does this tell us? Not that bullying is worse now, or more common, but that our children are less equipped to cope with it. And why is that? Well, there are probably several reasons, but one of them is certainly the fact that we are conditioning our kids to be victims.
We have built of this mythology of “the bigger person,” and told our children that the “bigger person” is the one who walks away from bullies, disengages, tells an adult. The “bigger person” is somehow the submissive one who slinks away and runs for cover. We tell our children that remaining silent in the face of a bully is “strong” and “courageous.” But somehow the strong, courageous, bigger child, who spends his childhood avoiding confrontation and retreating in the face of aggressors, never actually feels very strong, courageous, or big. He feels, rather, like a punchline. Because that is what we have told him to be.
If you are honest with yourself, and you think back to the times in your life when you didn’t respond to bullying, or stick up for yourself in the face of mockery, it wasn’t because you were “big” or “strong.” Precisely the opposite. It’s because you were scared. We recommend cowardice to our children and tell them it’s courage, only because to do otherwise would be to admit that we ourselves have been cowards. All of those moments of great resilience and will power, when we heroically backed away from a fight or a confrontation, were, we’d have to confess, nothing more than a garden variety case of wimping out.
I’d be willing to believe that, say, an MMA fighter who remains confidently silent in the face of some scrawny punk’s drunken taunting at a bar is truly being a bigger person. He could tear the other guy to shreds. He isn’t afraid. But he chooses the high road because the scrawny punk isn’t worth his time. Being the bigger person, taking the high road — these are things we do from a position of strength. If we do them because we’re scared, or intimidated, or just praying for the confrontation to be over, we are not on the high road. We are almost literally crawling away on our knees, hoping not to be noticed. Many children spend their formative years in this position. We congratulate them for their maturity while their self-image collapses
The best you can do is argue that this is the prudent and safe course, but it certainly is by no means courageous, strong, or somehow “higher.” And I’m not even convinced that it’s prudent or safe most of the time. Bullies bully because of the high they get from domination and power. If you make yourself a reliable source of that high, they’ll keep coming back for another fix. Suddenly the “high road” takes on a new connotation.
Now, there is a problem with teaching our kids to stand up for themselves and give back what is dished to them. The problem is that every school in America has adopted the profoundly insane position that “it doesn’t matter who started it,” everyone involved in a fight or argument will get in trouble. What sort of system is that? Of course it matters who started it. If Jimmy is defending himself from Bobby, or responding to harassment from Bobby, how is it just or reasonable to punish both Jimmy and Bobby as if they are equally to blame? I understand it can be hard to adjudicate these things in a school setting, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to adopt a blanket policy of punishing children for refusing to bow in submission to bullies. Maybe this is why we are dealing with a so-called bullying epidemic: because we have given bullies free rein and taught our children to wilt in their presence like fragile tulips.
I often hear parents tell their kids that it’s “never okay” to shout at or insult or hit someone. Never? If a group of bullies are surrounding you, hurling insults and invective just for sport, it’s still not okay to raise your voice or issue any sort of response-in-kind? What, then, is the more mature course? To “laugh it off,” as if you somehow find your own torment funny? To run away and tattle to an adult? What exactly is so mature about that?
Sure, there may be situations where a person has no real choice but to back away and retreat. But, despite what we tell our kids, retreat is not always the best response. In fact, most of the time it’s the coward’s way out. And if we instill cowardice in our children, no matter how we dress it up or what euphemisms we use to describe it, we cannot be surprised when they grow up to doormats.