What We’re Missing in the Fight Against Bullying

A few weeks ago, I posted my thoughts about the hit Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why. All of my students were watching it and talking about it, and that concerned me for several reasons, which I outlined in that post.  I want to follow up on those ideas by taking another look at something I posted a year or so ago about bullying because I think it fits hand in hand with the issues I have with the show.

As a teacher, I hear a lot of anti-bullying campaigns. Our school has one. I’m pretty sure just about every school in America has one. These are campaigns that encourage students not to be bullies and/or to stand up for students who are being bullied.

While I completely agree with the sentiment, I think we might be focusing too much on only one side of the issue. I think we are missing half of the equation, and that’s why we don’t really see results.

Yes, bullying is bad. We should be kind to each other and not belittle others. It’s called being a decent human being, and the world often seems to be in short supply of those. But here is some truth, it’s a tough truth, but truth often is hard to swallow:

There are always going to be mean people in the world.

The problem with mean people is that they’re mean. People who enjoy hurting others just for the sake of hurting them are not going to be affected when someone tells them they need to “be nice.” Part of the requirements of being a mean person is that you don’t care that you need to treat people with decency and respect. Now, I know that bullies don’t all fit one mold. I know that a lot of kids belittle others out of deep-seeded insecurity. There could be a serious underlying issue involved. I also want to make sure to note that I recognize there can be some extreme cases of bullying that heap on severe mental or physical abuse and those need to be dealt with by professionals. I’m not arguing against anti-bulling campaigns. They absolutely should exist. I don’t want to get rid of them. I just think we need to add another component.

Let’s continue to try and teach kids about standing up for others and being kind, but let’s also try to teach kids about dignity and self-respect. Let’s also try to teach them how to ignore what people say and not be a victim.

This doesn’t mean we teach students to pick fights will bullies and punch their way out of situations. That’s not the way to avoid being a victim. Bullies today don’t steal your lunch money or beat you up in the playground after school. Bullies today create fake Twitter accounts for the “fat” girl in class or post demeaning comments on your Instagram photos. Bullies today whisper behind your back while they smile to your face.

The most destructive weapons in a bully’s arsenal are WORDS.

Words have so much power. A well-placed and genuine compliment can leave a person glowing while an ill-timed and inconsiderate comment can leave them shattered. We often don’t give words the credit they deserve. They can cause devastation. They can tear a person down until there is nothing left. Words can be used to create something beautiful, but they can also be used to create something vile and ugly.

The thing about words, though, is that they only have as much power over us as we allow.

Most of the time, the people who are going to be bullies are the people who don’t care about listening to an anti-bullying campaign. So, maybe we should focus some of our efforts on showing students that sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Let’s take a page from Michelle Obama’s book and show kids that “when they go low, we go high.”

The fact of the matter is, we all (myself included) need to learn how to grow a thicker skin. One of my biggest struggles with Thirteen Reasons Why is the fact that the girl lays the blame for her suicide on everyone around her. And I’m not trying to marginalize someone’s pain. I was bullied as a kid. I think everyone has been bullied at some point. I know how much that hurts. However, we can’t blame our problems on everyone else. We alone are responsible for our actions. Other people can push us and persuade us, but in the end, it’s on us. At the end of the day, the person who was responsible for Hannah’s suicide on Thirteen Reasons Why was Hannah herself. Yes, there are circumstances outside of our control, but what we can control is how we react to those circumstances.

This “Oh you poor baby! How dare she say that about you?” attitude we have is crippling us. Should we show sympathy for others? Absolutely! But that sympathy needs to be followed by a recommendation to follow in Elsa’s footsteps and “Let it Go!” Is that hard to do? Of course! But most of the time it’s the only option we have if we don’t want to lose all of our joy.

We don’t need to be teaching kids that they should be treated like glass. Humans aren’t as fragile as we want to believe. We need to teach them to be confident and not to rely on what others think or say about them as the place where they determine their self-worth. We need to teach them that sometimes people are going to say awful things. Sometimes people are going to belittle you and cut you down. Sometimes people aren’t going to like you and they may not have a good reason for it.

Sometimes life isn’t fair and people are just plain mean.

You can’t control what other people do or say, but you can control how you react. You can learn not to give other people the power to tell you how you should feel about yourself. Bullying shouldn’t be tolerated. Period. But while we are working on eradicating that issue (which is unlikely), how about we learn how to put our big girl panties on and deal with it? The more we can teach our children and our students to quit caring what people say the less likely it is that they will be bullied because bullies only bully if someone lets them. (Say that five times fast.) We let them when we care what they say and when we get upset by their words. Once a bully sees that his victim isn’t affected by his words, he will (most likely) move on to a more vulnerable target. Although, let me be clear: I am NOT saying that if you are being bullied it is your fault. Don’t put those words in my mouth. I’m just saying that there is something you can do about it. It’s hard to ignore what people say and for awhile it probably won’t feel like it’s doing any good, but at least you can feel good about yourself for trying; for acknowledging to yourself that what someone else says about you doesn’t matter.

Eleanor Roosevelt said it best, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” People might not ever stop bullying you, but if you stop giving them the power to make you feel inferior then it won’t matter.

We need to teach students (and ourselves) to be confident. We need to empower them with the skills that help them cultivate a thick skin and a positive attitude. Confidence is empowering. We can put up thousands of posters that say, “Bullying stops here,” or “It isn’t big to make others feel small,” or “Don’t stand by, stand up. Stamp out bullying.” But that isn’t the only way to take away a bully’s power. The best way to do that is to teach ourselves to move past it and to quit giving bullies an inch. The only way to strip a bully of his or her power is simply not to hand over that power. Don’t give a bully the ability to make you feel different about yourself.

We need to teach our students and children that only they have the power to make themselves feel inferior and that as long as they don’t give that power away the bullies will never win.

3 thoughts on “What We’re Missing in the Fight Against Bullying

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  1. “The most destructive weapons in a bully’s arsenal are WORDS.”

    YES. And keep in mind I haven’t actually finished reading your post here…just wanted to get this thought out before I forget. There’s that saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” So not true. I doubt I’ll ever forget the rumor that spread throughout my middle school campus—it seemed to me that everyone thought I ate Chapstick. What’s so bad about that, aside from being patently gross? In hindsight, I have no idea. What hurt most was the judgement that came along with it. The isolation. The inability to make my voice heard. The way my protests fell on deaf ears. The way the person who started the rumors seemed to take endless joy from my misery. And one other thing I’d like to point out—those words, for some time, turned me into a person I’m not proud of being. A person who was unsure where she stood among the other students, and who tried to exercise leadership that wasn’t hers. A person who was bossy and self-centered and didn’t care much for others. That person is the polar opposite of who I am now. But it’s strange, the way the arena of bullying changes people, turns them into people they’ll regret being in a few years. I have even been a bully once, I regret to say. And what I did to someone I knew was worse than anything anyone ever did to me. I only recently stopped beating myself up about it and moved on…but for the longest time, I believed that the only person with any right to forgive me was the person I hurt. And that’s exactly why I forgave all my bullies from middle school. Because I understood their guilt and pain and wanted them to have the forgiveness I believed I couldn’t have, the forgiveness I believed was only mine to give.

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  2. You are absolutely right on the “bullies only bully if someone lets them” point. I have become more acutely aware of this in the last few months. My best friend—let’s call her O—and I are radically different in that while I care little for what people think of me—my lack of a need for much of a social life and past bullying has resulted in renewed self-confidence. There are exactly two people in the world besides me whose opinion I once valued in that way, and one of them is dead and the other betrayed me in cold blood. O, on the other hand, craves being social and wants friends surrounding her. It’s hard for her to be a whole US state away from me while we’re in college. She recently broke things off with a boy she was seeing because he was asking too much of her—she wanted a real relationship from him while he was afraid to commit, and the waiting hurt her deeply. She’s one of the strongest people I know and I don’t think she realizes her own strength. She lets people tug her around because she believes their opinions matter—she’s a social creature and she *cares* that they like her and want to be her friend. I’ve tried to tell her that “you can’t take your opinion of yourself from others,” but there’s only so much I can do. She isn’t me and her mind won’t follow the same rationale as mine. I wish the world would stop being unfair to her, but more than that (I’m almost ashamed to admit), I wish she would just toughen up already…because I know it won’t get any easier. She has to hold onto her own happiness, not just let others snatch it from her.

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Courtney Livingston

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