Media reports have brought the serious problem of bullying back into public discussion. States are passing laws, schools are implementing programs to address the problem, and commercial interests are lobbying school districts to buy their program. What is often left out of the solution equation is the reaction of kids themselves. Kids may go to the assembly or participate in the activities, but when a real bullying situation comes around, all that will get subordinated to the dynamics at hand.
By middle school, kids define bullying as when someone is picked on who does not deserve it. What parents, politicians, teachers, and school administrators see as bullying, kids see as stirring up drama or messing with someone. The kids involved each think the other kid is in the wrong. Often kids see the victim as the one who couldn’t take the joke, unless of course they are the victim. Tweens and teens deny that bullying is a big deal, saying that they “should just get over it.” When bullying results in tragedy, they are baffled as to how it happened.
Kids do know what parents and teachers want to hear, though. They will condemn bullying and write all the essays we want. But they will also say that we are the ones who teach them to bully. If we look at their comments, kids talk about the acceptance of athletes who get in bar fights and beat up their girlfriend, or parents who berate umpires at the little league game.
We will probably never eliminate bullying completely. If we are to reduce it, in the long run we must look at what example we make and help kids find the only solution to bullying, empathy. For that we must start young, and we must watch the news and ask what effect the ways we conduct advertising, politics, and sports have on our children’s attitudes. We must tell them that there are other ways to act, but we must find ways to have that discussion in terms that will resonate with them. There are certainly many people working to do just that, but much of the time we are just talking to ourselves so we will feel like we are doing something.