This topic hits pretty close to home for the members of my family. You may remember, 8 or so years ago, watching “Good Morning America” (or any of a half-dozen talk shows) and seeing video tape from a school-bus surveillance camera showing a twelve-year-old boy being brutally beaten and kicked by 3 older boys while other children looked on.
That boy, Casey Woodruff, was my nephew.
This case became something of a cause célèbre for the anti-bullying proponents, because Casey's parents sued the school board for failing to protect their son – and, eventually, they won.
Of course, during the course of the lawsuit counsel for the school district did their best to smear Casey's parents, Casey himself and his siblings by intimating that the parents were overprotective, Casey was a sniveling wimp who brought it on himself and the siblings were – guilty by association, I guess. The monetary award was merely a token, but the family had not sued for money; they sued because it was the only recourse they had left, the only way they had to spur the school district to take action against these bullies.
During this ordeal, our family learned the hard way that a lot of those “conventional wisdom” edicts about bullying are no longer true – if they ever were:
Boys will be boys. This is usually said in a patronizing tone, as if a gang of brothers hitting, kicking and kneeing in the groin a younger child every single school day for a year is merely a rite of passage for all the little darlings, like lisping or growing armpit hair. No. Some boys will be bullies, thugs and murderers if you let them. So will some girls.
You'll make it worse if you get involved. If your child tells you that he is being bullied, you must act, and you must act now. First and foremost, believe the child. You don't have to go off half-cocked before you learn all the sides of the story, but you must take your child seriously. If you don't get involved, and the school doesn't get involved . . . nothing will change. Stay involved until your kid is safe, and keep checking that he stays that way.
Tell them, “Just ignore it and they will go away.” This doesn't work. This never worked. Some people feel that the thing to tell your child is to fight back just as hard as they can the first time anyone touches them; even if they lose the fight, the thinking goes, future bullies will look for easier targets. While this may be a little too far the other way – and I'm not sure it is, mind you – it certainly beats doing nothing at all. Help your kids develop a few one-liners and other verbal coping mechanisms, teach them to hang around where the adults are, enroll them in self-defense classes, but don't tell them to ignore it. By the way: If you tell your kids that they can't start fights, but they are allowed to fight back, they may be suspended or expelled along with the bully. Do you care? Because I sure don't.
A certain amount of bullying toughens up a kid. No. A certain amount of bullying hurts and confuses a kid; prolonged bullying leaves him broken-hearted, bewildered and desperate. A bullied child may begin to think he really does deserve to be treated that way, that he really isn't worth protecting. This is why you must, must take bullying seriously; even if your child doesn't suffer lasting physical harm, it will forever distort his self-image.
My kid would never be a bully. Your kid probably has been a bully. They are often characterized as being loners with poor social skills, but actually they usually have better-than-average leadership traits and a fairly extensive network of friends. It's the group mentality – the desire to impress the lookers-on – that drives most bullies. Almost everyone has taken a crack at bullying someone weaker than they are (aggressive teasing counts), but most kids don't get stuck there.
Bullying is always physical. Wrong-o. It can be, for sure – it can involve fists, feet, guns, knives, chains and whatever else the bully can get his hands on. It can also be strictly verbal, with mean teasing and taunts. The words don't even have to be addressed to the victim – some kids are bullied by others starting vicious rumors about them or spreading insults over the Internet. It all hurts. It all counts.
If my kid was being bullied, I'd know it. Wrong again. According to the Department of Education's “Stop Bullying Now” website, only ¼ to ½ of the kids who are bullied will tell an adult; boys and older children are less likely than girls or little kids to tell. Bullied kids are embarrassed and ashamed that they are being singled out and may not want you to know that they can't handle it themselves.
If your kid does tell you that he is being bullied, listen. Learn. And act. If you don't protect him – who will?
PS – Casey grew up to be a fine young man.
The Aftermath of Bullying, Allison Seale
HRSA: Myths About Bullying