Let me begin by saying that there are some forms of bullying that should absolutely not be tolerated. For example, in elementary school, I saw a kid grab a girl and shove her against a wall. That type of physical aggression can lead to true harm. Name calling and taunting others, however, is part of the growing pains most, probably all of us, dealt with while growing up.
I remember coming home and tearfully telling my mother that kids had been teasing me about my big nose. (On a side note: I went to an ear, nose and throat specialist once to talk about surgery to repair a burst eardrum. The doctor began the visit by showing me what he could do to reduce the prominence of my nose. Anyway, back to elementary school.) My mother wisely suggested that if I joked about my nose, then kids would lose interest. Another time I carelessly slid a book off my desk and onto another one. The boy there pushed it back. In our immaturity, we pushed it back and forth until he told me he was going to beat me up after school. This was the same boy that had thrown the girl against the wall. Then there was the time that a girl accused my cousin and I of talking about her. When I tried to swing, she stood directly in front of me and told me that if I hit her with the swing, she would beat me up. What could I do? She was standing where the swing would hang. I carefully slid out of the seat and pulled the swing toward the supporting post of the swing set and wrapped it around the pole a few times. She still claimed that the chain had hit her in the head, so my cousin and I took off running across the field as fast as we could. I’m sure others can remember worse incidents than that, but you get the idea.
So, what do we do about it? We blow the negative effects of bullying out of proportion, while ignoring the powerful, maturing lessons a child can learn by enduring the ill behavior of a bully. We tell children to think about ways to be nicer to people. We don’t tell them how to handle their emotions when someone else isn’t nice to them. We tell them to stay near adults to avoid bullies. We don’t tell them how to be brave when there are no adults around. We encourage them to take anti-bullying pledges so we can pretend we have done something to solve the problem. In other words, we have taught our children to feel like victims who need to be protected.
This one-sided approach can lead parents down a never-ending path to avoid and appease the situation. Here is an example I read about recently. A young boy was being teased because his ears stuck out. Instead of talking to him about ways he could handle the taunts, and allowing him to experience whatever followed; she chose to put him through the pain and risks of cosmetic surgery to “fix” his ears. How will she help him now, when these kids see his ears and howl that they are too flat against his head? Maybe they will choose a new body part to criticize, just to see if he will have that “fixed” too. How will he learn that he is worthy of respect as he is and what others have to say about him just doesn’t matter?
Emotional pain and humiliation from these types of experiences don’t seem like benefits at first. In hind sight, however, these are exactly the type of life experiences that each of us need to go through to become the adults we are supposed to be. Being bullied can teach us that some people are mean. We need to recognize this type of person before we commit to a work, or especially, a personal relationship with them. Some people will learn that they can endure suffering and still get their work done. Others will not be afraid to take on new challenges because they know they have already been through worse. It is easy to be good when everything goes right. Hardships show us how deep that goodness goes. It’s time to throw out the anti-bullying pledge and embrace the possibilities discovered through adversity.