Recently, teen suicides are in the news. Gay teen suicides especially, but also other teen suicides. These are said to be the result of persistent bullying. Is the school social world is any more poisonous today than it was almost fifty years ago when I was a favorite target of a bully who called me names and occasionally got a little physical? Did I want to kill myself because of this jerk and his buddies? No. Maybe it was because that boy who got off on calling me names was on the not-likely-to-graduate track, and we both knew it. He did not affect my life significantly because he and his friends were outsiders in our high school, too. Not sports heroes, not academic achievers, just nasty boys with issues.
It seems from the news reports that the kind of bullying that takes place today among teenagers is a) potentially much more violent, and b) engaged in by a much larger element in the school and the wider social world. How else to account for kids being so miserable they would kill themselves? That boy who bothered me at my locker never bothered me in the school library. He never waited to ambush me outside a class, or called or came to my house (lucky him that he never met my formidable father). He and the other cowardly types who have attempted to harass me over the years hardly made a dent in my life because they were mere specs in a much bigger universe. Anyway, I can’t take an anonymous phone call seriously, or any other bit of stupid crap that cowards do.
A kid who feels rejected by everyone in his or her social world—usually, the school—needs another world that is welcoming. For me, that world was comic books, and books in general. Amazingly, there were no bullies at the public libraries that were my second home as a teenager. Nor, later, at comic book conventions. My problem was solved because high school simply became something to get through so I could read my books and comics. That may not have been an ideal social situation but it suited me just fine. Having an alternative social world may be a sufficient solution.
Of course parents can make a difference and help their bullied kids, but there is a limit to the typical methods. One of the issues surrounding these recent situations is that the adults did not recognize the desperation of the children. These kids clearly don’t feel that someone with power has their back, whereas I always knew that my parents, and my mother in particular, were ready to fight battles for me with a school. Today’s parents appear to be helpless themselves, or clueless, or too self-involved to know what to do. Or something. It would be unfair to tar them all with the same brush. Some try the usual civil methods, and they just don’t work. If that is so, it’s time for more drastic methods, depending on the misery of the bullied kid. Are self-defense lessons in order? Would being home schooled avoid all the nonsense? How about sending the kid to live with a relative in another locale for a while? What about enrolling the kid in a special school? What about the whole family moving? The truth is that some regions of our country are more poisonous socially than others because they do not offer enough social choices. I was lucky because my parents lived in a cosmopolitan area and I always knew there were many social groups within it. My school itself was very much a mixture of types. Other children are not so lucky, so some parents need to seriously examine the situation and make a drastic choice. The geographical cure actually can work when the problem will resolve itself in a few years as the bullied kid gains more confidence with age and social acceptance in a different milieu.
Meanwhile, the other kids just watch, or actively participate in the bullying, as they did fifty years ago. Has anything really changed? In a kid society, the first level of help has to come from other kids. They are the moral and actual arbiters of the school hallways. Kids need adults to push them in the right moral direction. I don’t know the global answer to bullying, but I do know that when you see something wrong happening, you’re supposed to try to stop it. That’s the bystander’s responsibility, and parents should be teaching their children that. Bullying victims have their own responsibility, which is to persistently seek adult help until they get it. If a bad habit can be broken in two or three weeks, likely the bad habit of bullying schoolwide can be broken with similar attention by determined adults for that short space of time. A zero tolerance sweep, in effect, with other concentrated efforts planned for months later. In other words, adults can deploy their strength (and they have it, whether they choose to use it or not) to push to end bullying in a specific situation on a short-term basis, and then repeat the process until the bullies are inured to better habits of behavior. If it does not pay bullies to continue, they won’t. Not getting a rise out of people, not getting congratulated or egged on, not getting rewards of any kind for bullying will stop most attempts. As part of the anti-bullying effort, what needs to happen is what we call a paradigm shift. We need a new social zero tolerance of bullying. It may be that the national attention now being called to bullying is such a shift in the making. If and when we can make it unfashionable, uncool, and socially stupid to be a bully, bullies will become an endangered species.
One side of me says this will never happen. The other side says that in recent memory we changed from a society in which smoking was considered socially sophisticated and cool to one in which smoking is mostly banned in public places and is considered a socially backward behavior, a bad habit. This encourages me to believe that if we change our tolerant attitudes to bullying, in addition to using authority to stop perpetrators, incidences of bullying will be drastically reduced, and lives will be saved.