December 15, 2013
Teachers Talk - Bullying: A scourge on North American society
Connie Solomon, Teacher, Kingsway College, Oshawa, ON

No one who has been the target of a bully’s fury will ever forget the gut-wrenching anguish that follows the assault. Few victims of bullying will extricate themselves from the mess and remain unscathed by the ordeal. Unfortunately, many will experience the systematic abuse for months, and even years, before they are able to finally escape the torture. They will continue through life with bullying baggage which countless counseling sessions will cease to lift from their weary shoulders. Others will give up in despair, ending their lives in an attempt to escape their torment. It can be rightly said that little else is as devastating to a child or youth as being bullied, for it changes lives forever. Very few victims of bullying will ever be the same again. Most will move on and make the best of things, while a significant number will forever be haunted by the memories. Some will commit suicide and forever change the realities that their friends and families will experience as a legacy of the cruel world of bullying.
 
The well-known author, Barbara Coloroso, shares that about 35 percent of children have been “directly involved in bullying incidents” and about 38 percent of special education students have been targeted by bullies (Coloroso, 2008, p. 12). These numbers are staggering. With the realization that essentially one in three children will be bullied, adults must be more vigilant in ferreting out this behavior whenever possible.
 
Bullies are male and female, tall and short, rich and poor. There does seem to be one fairly sure thing, however: “home life is at the root of almost all kinds of bullying that kids have to endure” (McGraw, 2008, p. 60). Bullies use a variety of ways to hone their craft. Yet, as Coloroso observes, they do have some things in common. Most bullies like to dominate others and use people for their own purposes. They find it very difficult to see things from another person’s perspective and are only concerned with their own desires. They will likely hurt others when adults are not around. In their home they will see the weaker sibling or peer as prey. Bullies will blame, criticize, and falsely accuse to cover for their own inadequacies by projecting these allegations onto their victims. They refuse to take responsibility for their own actions and show little ability to understand the consequences of their deeds. Bullies thirst for attention (Coloroso, 2008, p. 20). Unfortunately the attention they seek becomes, for others, a painful ordeal. What bullies fail to realize is that their actions cause fear, low self-esteem, defenselessness, anger, depression, and stress to those they harass with words or actions.
 
One teenaged girl was taunted by a group of girls who were handing out religious pamphlets. When she declined to take a pamphlet, one of the bullies said she was going to hell because she was not willing to read the good material in the religious pamphlets. The teen continued to be taunted by the group of bullies. She never knew how to combat the bullying because the bully always had quick, eloquent comments to which she could not respond with any clarity. She soldiered on and eventually entered college where she met another girl that reminded her of her high school nemesis, the religious bully girl. She didn’t let the college girl get under her skin; instead, she decided to write about the girl in her journal. Eventually she wrote a novel based on her experiences as a victim of bullying in high school. The bullied girl became a well-known novelist—fashioning her negative experiences into a story to help others deal with their own bullying issues (Hall, 2011, p. 294-296).
 
The question that must be answered by victims, parents, and educators is: what strategies can be used for dealing with bullies? Obviously the story of the girl who makes good and becomes a novelist is a wonderfully positive spin on how you can make a negative situation into a positive one. But what about the boy who is kind-hearted and won’t fight back? He doesn’t really fit the stereotypical “macho” man image that his male peers expect of him. So he may be called a sissy or a baby, maybe worse. William Pollack writes about the “boy code” which is a mold that North American society has created for boys. Our society expects boys to fit the stereotype of that code. Pollack states that “The stereotypes apply to insult and ridicule and bullying, as well as to admiration and reward” (Pollack, 1998, p. 350). Therefore, the so-called “boy code” which society expects of boys and men actually comes back to bite them if they do not conform to the norms of the code. That code says a man must not show emotions, must be tough—take it on the chin! Therefore, bullying between males often includes greater amounts of shameful and emasculating emotions which increase the pain and suffering. Often, this suffering takes place in silence. On the other hand, the “boy code” may actually be used to heap admiration on men who fit the “macho” image which underpins the code’s ideals. This, of course, makes all men who do not fit into the mold feel less than men. These very dynamics are often prevalent in bullying cases that involve male bullies and male victims.
 
In his book Life Strategies for Dealing with Bullies, Jay McGraw writes that “Bullies don’t have to threaten you with force. Maybe they can’t—maybe you’re even bigger and stronger. But maybe the bully is more popular and is using that popularity to leave you out of activities or social groups” (McGraw, 2008, p.84). The familiar old rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” has been handed down through the generations as a tactic to deflect taunts and teasing. Yet the words are truly a denial of the truth. The truth is that words do hurt. In some cases, words hurt worse than the physical pain of forms of bullying. In the book, And Words Can Hurt Forever, the authors comment that “the U.S. Department of Education reports that 77 percent of middle and high school students in small Midwestern towns have been bullied” (Garbarino & deLara, 2003, p. 1). Unfortunately, the statistics do not tell the entire story. Bystanders are also victims of bullying.  They also suffer. Garbarino and deLara declare, “Most children watch the bullying of their peers with a sense of helplessness, frozen in fear, with guilt and, ultimately, shame for doing nothing to help” (Garbarino & deLara, 2003, p. 2).
 
Not long ago, Canadian and world media sources reported that Amanda Todd, a 15-year old teenager from Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, took her own life after social media tormentors had dared her to do so. After her death on Wednesday, October 24, 2012, these same tormentors “rejoiced in cyberspace when she eventually did” commit suicide (Teitel, 2012, p. 68). Shortly before Amanda’s suicide, she posted a plaintive YouTube video detailing her plight. Some of the pathetic phrases that she spoke on video—while displaying the words on posters in front of her on screen—included ‘cried every night, lost all my friends and respect’ and ‘all from my past..life’s never getting better..can’t go to school’ and ‘I felt like a joke in this world…I thought nobody deserves this L’ (Friscolanti, 2012, p. 72). Amanda Todd told her own mother on numerous occasions that she wanted to die. Her family was well aware of the struggles she was facing, yet even with all their support, and knowing that her own death would cause them great pain, she decided to end her life. In spite of the deep sadness that her death brings, “there is hope that Todd’s story can make a difference. Maybe the next bully will think twice” (Friscolanti, 2012, p. 72).
 
About two years before Amanda Todd ended her life, Phoebe Prince, a girl of 15 was dealing with her own living hell at a high school in Massachusetts. She and her family were recent immigrants from Ireland to the United States. Phoebe immediately “had drawn the ire of the ‘Mean Girls’ by briefly dating a popular senior football player in her first freshman weeks at the school” (Kennedy, 2010, p. 1). From that point on she was subjected to violation of civil rights with bodily injury, criminal harassment, stalking, and statutory rape. She eventually couldn’t take it anymore. On January 14, 2010, she headed home after being threatened in the library and in a hallway at school. “As she walked home, one of the ‘Mean Girls’ drove by and threw a can of Red Bull at her. Phoebe walked into her house and hung herself in a stairwell” (Kennedy, 2010, p. 1).
 
The examples of bullying in our society show us that indeed there is a huge problem. It has been proven, time and time again, through news reports and documentation in thousands of books and journals. The question that haunts us is this: what do we do now that we are aware of this huge scourge on society? We cannot just stand by and do nothing. Common decency urges us to act on the knowledge we have. Yet, a sad reality remains. Numerous teachers and adults stood by and witnessed the abuse of Phoebe Prince, and did nothing. They thought it was just teenagers being teenagers. Everything would turn out okay, they thought (Kennedy, 2010, p. 1) They were wrong! Everything DID NOT turn out okay. Their inaction cannot be underestimated, for by choosing to be bystanders they became part of the problem.
 
Finding workable solutions to this terrible blight on our society—and the pain it causes children and youth—is going to take an inordinate amount of work and a great deal of vigilance. As Christian parents, educators, and citizens, we must start somewhere. A good place to start is teaching our children to be thoughtful and kind to all people, regardless of their gender, social status, religious beliefs, race, or disabilities. We can only do this by inculcating them with the wonderful principles embedded in the age-old pages of the Scriptures. The Golden Rule, treating others as we would want to be treated, should be central to the training we give our children. Above all, our children and students need to see their parents, teachers, and the significant adults in their lives, model what it is to be kind, thoughtful, and tolerant.
 
Lives will change when we show love by encouraging children to find value in life through living meaningful lives that uplift others. Bullies and their victims need to be understood and respected. Bullies especially need to have tough love applied to them so they will move away from the destructive behaviors they have used to target others, also damaging themselves. Victims need to know they can be safe and that they will receive help and support when they need it most. Without a Christ-centered model for healing, there can be no lasting hope for bullies and victims. A sense of meaningless will pervade if adults don’t step in and become part of the solution. The late philosopher and author Dr. Francis Schaeffer wrote, “The dilemma of modern man is simple: He does not know why man has any meaning…This is the damnation of our generation, the heart of modern man’s problem” (Schaeffer, 1972, p. 248).
 
Parents, educators, and adults in significant modeling roles must step up and courageously stand up for the downtrodden. The weak in our society must be helped. We cannot stand by and say, “this is just a phase” or “it’s just a teenage thing” or “let them work out their differences on their own.” This type of thinking is unacceptable. Schools must make strong policies regarding bullying and any behaviors that tear down individuals. Parents must teach, through example, how to treat each other with respect and dignity. Educators and parents alike need to equip children and youth with the social skills to deal with conflict without injuring others in the process. Many governments are now enacting laws that directly address bullying and other destructive behaviors. With families, educators, and governments working in concert, hopefully we will see a decrease in the tragic escalation of bullying and cyber bullying. We all must work together as adults to see that no child is left to “battle” a bully alone!
 
References:
 
  • Coloroso, Barbara. (2008). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander. New York: Collins Living.
  • Friscolanti, M. (2012, October 29). Shunned in life, remembered in death. Maclean’s Magazine, 42, 70-71.
  • Garbarino, J., & deLara E. (2003). And words can hurt forever. New York: Free Press.
  • Hall, M. K., & Jones, C. (Eds.). (2011). Dear bully. New York; Harper Teen.
  • Kennedy, H. (2010, March 29). Phoebe Prince, South Hadley High School’s ‘new girl’ driven to suicide by teenage cyber bullies. Daily News. Retrieved on December 12, 2012, from http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-03-29/news/27060348_1_facebook-town-hall-meetings-school-library.
  • McGraw, J. (2008). Life strategies for dealing with bullies. New York; Aladdin.
  • Pollack, W. (1998). Real boys. New York: Random House.
  • Schaeffer, F. A. (1972). He is there and he is not silent. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale   House Publishers.
  • Teitel, E. (2012, October 29). Bullied to death. Maclean’s Magazine, 42, 68-70.