sleepers

sleepers

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Bullies

What is with all of the bullying? There seems to be a lot of it going on in the media, in politics, all around us. Adults in positions of power are doing and saying the most appalling things. It really makes you wonder what happened when they were kids. Where does that come from? Why didn't they learn better early on?

The scale of things I see and deal with on a day to day basis is much smaller and much more personal. Bullying at school, sporting events. When does a kid go from being considered a nice child to being labelled as a bully? Things at school and in sports have brought it up lately, and I find myself trying not to take sides in various incidents. But let's get real, it's impossible not to take sides when your own kids are involved. If one of my guys is wronged I can usually go and resolve things in a civil way (after ranting angrily in private), but I will overcome my normal shyness to go stick up for my boys. Mama tiger is in there, believe me. I try to maintain an open mind and I'm not afraid to admit when one of my guys has done something wrong and I actually appreciate the outside reinforcement from other adults and people who have influence with my kids about the right way to behave and treat others. There have been  incidents over the last 12 years when I wasn't actually there when something happened and others stepped up and intervened, or told me about things that needed addressing, and it's all good. My kids are not perfect little angels; no kids are. It takes a good village to raise a good person. Finding your village is very challenging in this complex world we live in, but we are fortunate to have a great community surrounding our guys.
One of the things that troubles me, though, is the way we tend to label kids. There have been incidents where a kid was 'bullied' and other kids were punished, and then it turned out that the kid getting bullied wasn't blameless and had his own history of bullying. It's a complex problem, and I know that the teachers and coaches and parents have a hard time keeping things fair and keeping order in the ranks. My guys know they can come to me or Paul and tell us things that happen and they have the self-confidence to stand up for themselves, so when it has happened to them they know they have us standing with them, and that there will be consequences if they've done wrong, but they aren't afraid to tell us the truth, at least.
So there's this kid. He's what we would (politically incorrectly) call a weird kid, where there's just something not right there, though he's in regular school, and he has no convenient label put on him to explain or excuse his oddness, or help others with ways to handle him. But he's always been 'off', and thus always been a target to the other kids, from the beginning of school. This kid has serious problems fitting in with the other kids; they don't like him, they find him annoying, they find him tasteless and offensive and disgusting. I've heard this from numerous sources, mind you; it's pretty universal among their grade. It hasn't gotten better, and as these things tend to go, it's getting worse as they all head at breakneck speed towards the dreaded junior high years. He's really one of the kids who is a constant target for a few of the other kids who are what I would call 'career bullies' who constantly pull crap and then skillfully try to turn things around when the adults show up, blaming other kids and saying they were the bullied one; some of them are seriously mean and scary and all of the kids in their grade know to avoid them like the plague. Those kids may really be the ones to be seriously worried about, but they're a whole other discussion.

But this kid is different. He has no friends, though he's not malicious; he didn't used to be mean. But lately, he's been doing things that seem to indicate that he's angry and frustrated and not surprisingly, he hates the way things are for him. And so an incident occurred and several boys were accused of bullying him. This is nothing new, mind you, it happens with some regularity despite the school officials' massive efforts to crack down on any bullying with strict punishments, educational efforts about it all and counseling groups and other measures. They are a good school that way, with a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying; they really try. But this kid is always getting bullied. So an incident occurred with Casey there, and it turned out that he had a hand in teasing the odd kid. There were taunting words exchanged, though there was no physical violence in the actual teasing part of the whole thing. Except as it turned out, the kid getting bullied may have triggered the incident by physically smacking the other kids too hard in the game they were playing. He had insisted on joining their game even though he wasn't welcome, and then got physically rough during the game and was hitting them and wouldn't stop, and pissed them all off and then the name calling started. And Casey was a name caller, mad and angry and fed up. And he got in a right lot of trouble for it, with a note sent home and parents and teachers and such all involved.
So I heard the story first, in bits, from Casey, and then more the next day, then more the day after. The interesting thing was that he was wracked with guilt for having called a name in the first place, and then for not having owned up to doing it right away; he claimed it was this thing where he said a word under his breath and wasn't sure anybody else heard it until later when all the kids involved were being interrogated and accusations started flying thick and fast and the truth was up for grabs. Once accused of saying a bad word he owned up and admitted it and then was in serious trouble for not coming forward and admitting it in the first place, even though he got accused of some other things he didn't actually do and the teller later recanted. It was all quite muddled and wasn't handled particularly well by the authority in charge.
So he couldn't sleep and was upset and said he felt so awful for name-calling in the first place, as well as realizing he would have been better off admitting it in the first place rather than keeping mum about part of his own role in the debacle. He did feel it was unfair to be falsely accused by other kids and have adults just unilaterally decide based on the accusations flying around that he was a 'bad kid'. I was so relieved that he felt awful about his part in the whole thing, honestly. We talked about it all and sorted out some truths and what was fair and unfair and what he knew to be true about himself, and he actually did some hard self-examination to see how he felt about what he'd really actually done, and to move through just being upset at being falsely accused of other things and how unjust that felt. Sorting out the whole confused mess in his own mind seemed to help him figure out where he stood and how he felt about the various aspects of it all.
I asked him to go ahead and let himself really deeply feel this awfulness he was going through and remember it and imprint it deep inside so that the next time something like this happened, he'd remember how this felt and maybe it would help him not to do something like it again. I know for myself that having once teased someone cruelly, I hated the way it made me feel and I've tried never to do it again, and that was in junior high. It had a lasting impact on me, and I have to hope this will have an impact on him. I could relate to how he felt, and we talked about it all.

It's a small incident in the overall view of things, really, and it happened a while back, so it's all blown over now, with punishments and consequences and whatnot, and Casey's standing as a reasonable kid who means well is re-established among the school authorities. But  for him there were a number of important parts to consider about that incident. One was that Casey had never been accused of being a bully before; in the past he's been a kid who was bullied by the mean kids, so he wasn't used to being on the 'bad guy' side of the whole issue. He really didn't like being a bad guy, or being labelled as a bad guy, one bit. And that I find very encouraging, though I was appalled at his part in the whole thing. He also experienced first-hand just how fragile and precious having a good reputation is; the speed and ferocity with which he was publicly accused and judged by the main adult at the scene simply on the basis of what other kids were saying was very frightening to him. And he may have been judged harshly and prematurely, but he certainly felt immediate consequences for his actions; he knew with certainty that he didn't want to ever be in that situation ever again. It was one of those incidents in life where, if you can learn from it, you gain experience with your own dark side and learn to control it a bit better.
The kid who was bullied may have triggered the incident with his inappropriate slapping behavior, but he wasn't of course blamed for it at all. He did not come forward and complain about what happened; his younger siblings did, and then the accusations among all of the kids involved started flying fast and free. And while it's very admirable that the siblings would stand up for him, it's something to notice and question that he would not come forward himself and say what really happened. He did not stand up for himself, ever; he did not tell the entire truth about what happened, and he did not correct the other kids who were lying about various aspects. Whether he felt it was futile, or he felt to blame, or was too scared or humiliated or what is unknown. But he was acting angry and frustrated before and during the incident and it's all troubling. All the focus was on the kids who turned on him and bullied him, and perhaps that's appropriate or to be expected because it's already such a set pattern that he is the one who gets tormented. The ones who tormented him did get in trouble and face consequences, but the deeper issues he must be facing were not, to my knowledge, addressed in any way that would actually help him in the future. The way this particular incident was handled may have helped Casey learn from it, but I seriously doubt that the kid in the middle of it learned anything new and helpful from it; it was just another in a long string of incidents he's had to endure, and it won't be the last.

This whole thing was also an eye-opener for me, as a parent on the other side of the bullying this time; having one of my kids involved in an incident really made me look at it all from a different perspective. I know that my kid isn't a natural bully and this isn't usual behavior for him, so having him suddenly angrily and loudly accused publicly by the authority in charge, based solely on other kids' panicky accusations, was shocking and seemed premature and inappropriate, though perhaps the idea was to make a fearful example of him for the rest of the kids. He's since managed to redeem himself at school and at home, so that's good, but he also had several reasonable, supportive adults at school and at home who were on his side, who believed in him, to help him deal with the fallout, and many kids don't. That 'bully' label creates an expectation, and if there are further mis-handlings or non-handlings (and possibly denial by the parents), that label gets stronger and harder to erase, and it's easy to see where that would lead.

I also have to ask myself what should have been handled differently for the kid who was bullied and what hasn't been handled well in the past for that pattern of being bullied to be so long and well established. What can be done for the odd kid? Is just punishing and admonishing the kids who cat-called enough? What does that actually do for the kid who was bullied, aside from causing more of a rift and more resentment and setting him apart even further? Is there a better answer?
I was bullied enough when I was a kid to have concluded that some kids are just bone-deep mean right from the get-go and they get enjoyment from tormenting other kids and they will go out of their way to find their chosen victims. I never knew why they picked me or my sister, but they unerringly found us. In my own case, most of the time I said nothing about it to anyone because I figured it wouldn't do any good, and I found it all incredibly humiliating. I felt ashamed on so many levels: ashamed for being  a target, a weirdo who didn't fit in; ashamed that maybe all the cruel things they said about me might be true. I was angry and also very ashamed that I didn't have the courage to stand up for myself against the bullies; I felt powerless to do so. I was also a kid who was shouted at and knocked around at home, though, so the feelings of powerlessness had very early roots. For me it was an endurance test; like the 'it gets better' messages say, it got better. Time and distance and counseling and a lot support from friends and family all helped. Having 'victim' stamped on your forehead is not a simple or easy fix. I have to hope this kid can endure and find some support to get through the years to come.
I really feel for the parents who have sensitive kids who get teased like I was; nobody deserves to be teased and humiliated, and it's heartbreaking as a parent to see your child suffering. The anger at the mean kids and the situation, as well as the environment that engenders it, is hard to deal with. What are you supposed to do? I dealt with this particular instance as best I could as a parent, from the other side of the coin this time, and I have to hope it's something that will help my kid in the future on how to deal with bullying from both sides.



2 comments:

  1. Wow. Hit home in a lot of ways. I think C. is very lucky to have a mom who will both support him and guide him as you have done. And undfortunately, I think in the young tormentee, there may well be a very angry young man who will turn the tables on ... someone, somewhere. Not because he's bad per se, but because that is what he's learned.

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  2. First off, kudos to you for the aplomb, rational thinking and kindness with which you handled everything. It's hard to be the parent called in and talked to as if you've done something wrong, and I think that what you said to Casey is exactly the right thing. We aren't called on to meditate on our actions very much in this life, and it's important that we do so, especially as we grow up.

    As to the bullying thing, I was bullied in school too, and I think, as everyone always said, it was because I was so much fun to target, because I would react. Junior High and the lead-up years are extremely emotionally volatile, and it's easy to spot who's developing younger than the rest. I was already intellectually isolated from a lot of my peers by third grade, and eventually that drove a big wedge that turned into serious bullying when I went to public schools around seventh grade.

    Kids, like all age groups, have a strong desire to be liked, and for a lot of people that means stepping on the competition. I was a naturally gregarious if somewhat strange kid, and that made me either a charismatic leader or an outcast, depending on which crowd I was with. Ultimately, being different was a choice I kept making, because despite all the bullying, I knew who I was and what I was about. Eventually the bullying let up, but really only when we were all on the same footing, facing adulthood, facing the same confusing hormonal instincts, and more significantly, separated from constant contact by a larger tide of kids like us. In a group of 60 it's hard to find peers, in a group of 700 it's much easier. Going to a larger school with more people within a 4 year age range, instead of a traditional K-8 was a big help in changing the social dynamics for me. I hope that the kid at Casey's school finds some friends as they transition into their teen years. It sounds like he's been having a hard time.

    Kudos also to Casey for being true to himself and letting you know how he was feeling. That was brave, and well done. It's hard to stay in touch with your emotions when accusations are flying. Casey's got his head in the right place.

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