In order to effectively combat bullying, the leading form of child abuse in America, and the only form we tell the most vulnerable among us to “just ignore,” adults as well as students must overcome numerous, inaccurate and dangerous myths that actively oppose learning not just in schools but wherever children gather.
Bullying is a specific kind of abuse that harbors specific goals. Most bullying experts define bullying as the deliberate use of superior power (physical, verbal, relational) in order to deliberately harm another, usually through some form of humiliation, isolation and threat of further abuse, and for no good reason and throughout a period of time (usually three incidents or more).
Bullying is victimization without provocation that usually includes some form of terror, which is power wedded to fear. So if a student complains that his feelings were hurt in gym class or he was struck on the head by a ball—it may or may not be bullying. To know for sure, we would need to know motives. Was it an accident or intentional? If it’s bullying, a pattern will emerge.
If a student complains how a group of girls didn’t include her during a locker-bank chit-chat or eat lunch with her, authority would need to know if the supposed “mean girls” deliberately excluded her to harm her through rejection or isolation, or were they, like adults, exercising their freedom to hang out with whom they choose, which isn’t bullying.
Now to one of the most prevalent and dangerous myths: bullying is not defined nor is it the result of miscommunication, misunderstanding and even anger management problems. Many targets of serial bullying have no relationship to the bully, so there is no misunderstanding on a personal level, though serial bullies are more than happy for adults to believe there is.
Bullies bully because it gives them what they want. On a personal level, it fills them feelings of power and pleasure, which can be intoxicating. In Emily Bazelon’s Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the power of Character and Empathy, we meet Brittany, a real “mean girl.” This sixth grader enjoyed mocking a meeker girl for wearing the same clothing day after day. Eventually other girls broke off their friendship with Brittany, who was asked in an interview if she missed anything about being a bully. “Feeling like you’re powerful and you control your group…That’s the thing I miss.”
And study after study confirms that to be mean, unkind and even cruel to another makes you more popular among classmates, especially during the middle-school years. This includes Christian schools as well. Cruelty is a perverse form of currency that bullies are very willing to use at the expense of others, making learning so much more difficult than it should be not just for targets but for bystanders who worry they might be next. When bullying goes unchecked, most students survive, not thrive.
Self-Love, Not Self-Hate
Rounding out the most prevalent myths about bullying is the common belief that bullies have low self-esteem. Writes Roy Baumeister in a groundbreaking article entitled “Violent Pride” for Scientific American (Aug/Sept 2006), unfortunately for the low self-esteem theory, “researchers have gradually built up a composite image of what it is like to have low self-esteem, and that image does not mesh well with what we know about aggressive perpetrators. People who have a negative view of themselves are typically muddling through life, trying to avoid embarrassment, giving no sign of a desperate need to prove their superiority. Aggressive attack is risky; people with low self-esteem tend to avoid risks…Playground bullies regard themselves as superior to other children; low self-esteem is found among the victims of bullies but not among bullies themselves.”
The majority do not “hate themselves” and so pick on others in order to “feel better.” It’s the duty of educators, parents, coaches and others in authority to bring serial bullies one of the most overlooked virtues today: a healthy understanding of humility.
But old understandings die hard, so many educators and parents persist in the unsupported belief that though bullies act tough on the inside, they are very broken and low on the inside. But as Baumeister reminds us, “We know from ample research that people with overt low self-esteem are not aggressive. Why should low self-esteem cause aggression only when it is hidden?” He says there is no research that supports this common claim of a hidden core of self-doubt, anxiety and insecurity among serial bullies who are far more likely to commit a serious crime in their twenties than their non-bully peers. In fact one study from the University of Chicago showed an even more disturbing possibility: brain scans of aggressive bullies suggested that they receive pleasure when seeing another in pain. (Nov 7, 2010, Reuters: Bullies may get kick out of seeing others in pain). Couple this with the fact that children with special needs are more likely to be bullied than their peers, and we see why strong, loving and courageous intervention is so important.
If you have ever looked into the despairing eyes of psychologically tortured targets, and if you have ever looked into the watery eyes of their parents or guardians as I have across this country, you will know two profound truths: they need hope and justice through courageous and loving intervention. Targets of ongoing bullying and their families ultimately do not need a shoulder to cry on. They need shoulders to stand on. They need someone—authority, bystanders or both—to intervene on their behalf. And they need a better roadmap that will bring them out of the badlands of bullying and onto the open plains of freedom, dignity and academic creativity.
Help for Targets
The main character trait that makes a child a target is a non-assertive personality. This truth in no way justifies the abuse, but it does put it in context. When it comes to serial bullying, context is king.
Studies show that targets avert eye contact, rarely smile, are not social relative to their peers—before bullying begins. One study from Canada is painfully telling. They asked five different schools very far away from one another to identify a bully, target and bystanders. Having never met one another, they were put in one room. Within two hours every bully began to dominate every former target. Why? Bullies key in on others they perceive as weaker: those they can dominate and get away with it, proving that a bully is not looking for a fight. She wants to overwhelm.
About 80% of how we communicate with others is through body language. Serial targets often exhibit weaker body language: little eye contact, anxious facial expressions, slouched shoulders when sitting and standing, short strides and a general sense of unease when around others.
As an advisor during the filming of the docu-drama called “One,” where the lives of three targets are depicted in powerful and graphic detail, I told one of the actors who played a gym teacher that if I were a bully in his gym class, “I would pick on that boy right there.” “Why that one?” he asked.
I said, “Look at how he hangs just outside the circle of the kids right next to him. He could take one small step forward, but he won’t. He’s non-assertive. Look at how his shoulders are slumped over and how he doesn’t make consistent eye contact with anyone. And he doesn’t talk. He doesn’t assert his personality into the group. And when he doesn’t, he’s vulnerable because bullies, like wolves, seek out isolated prey.”
In contrast, I said, “Look at the guy to his left. See how he holds eye contact and he stands up straight and he’s comfortable talking to others? He appears confident. Most bullies will leave him alone.”
I wish our children lived in a world where not appearing confident and self-assured didn’t make them candidates for abuse. I wish youth culture celebrated differences and distinctions the way many adults advocate. But it doesn’t. Instead, our children live in an R-rated world and we cannot make it G through wishful thinking that is naïve as it is dangerous for targets of bullying. They need real, practice and wise help right now.
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Part 2 of this article will appear on FOCUS on Friday, November 28.