Four things I’ve learned or relearned about bullying this month

1. We all have stories. (Many of you have been generous enough to share them with me. Thank you.) We played different roles in those stories: teased or teasing, standing by or standing up for someone, some mix of all of these. But we have in common the vividness with which those stories have stayed with us or can come back to us when we think about them. They remain a part of us.

2. There’s a desire for those stories to be simple–to talk about a single bully, a single bullied kid, a neatly defined collection of incidents, a clear-cut resolution, a straightforward narrative–but the real story is often more complicated, and rarely involves one tormentor, one victim, protagonist and antagonist neatly laid out for everyone to see. Instead it’s about groups and the microsocieties they form, often with no one clearly in charge, often with many of the tormentors thinking of themselves as among those chiming in from the sidelines, not realizing they’re really doing anything, not clearly seeing the cumulative effect that they’re a of. It’s also a story whose roles are not static; today’s child who teased or stood by can be tomorrow’s child who told her friends to knock it off and vice versa.

3. There’s also something of an instinct toward seeing bullied kids as sad victims, and to feeling a little sorry for them when they share their stories, even years and years later. This can make sharing these stories a little uncomfortable. It also makes it easy to lose sight that there’s a fair amount of pride in having survived and moved on to build adult lives, and that acknowledging the past is very different from being controlled by or still living it. And the thing is, today’s children can pick up on pity as surely as today’s adults can. If we act out of pity, it’s harder to reach a kid than if we act out of caring, compassion, and genuinely liking them. This sometimes seems a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one.

4. One of the biggest reasons kids tease others or stand by and let such teasing happen is that they’re terrified they’ll be tormented or excluded next. Some kids find the courage to set that fear aside and act with kindness more readily than others, and I don’t know why, but I do know that who has courage can change day to day, too. I’m coming to understand it’s important to acknowledge just how much courage it takes to defend someone being teased, or even simply not to join in when others tease them. Small acts of kindness matter tremendously, and we need to teach them to our children–model them for our children–always. But we also need to somehow teach them that they can be brave, and that it’s worth being brave, so that they can find the courage to put that impulse toward kindness, which I continue to believe is often already there, into practice.

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