Bully for the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick, who in the wake of two high-profile teen suicides have now "outlawed" bullying in schools and in cyberspace. While it remains to be seen what impact the bill will actually have, it is clear that unless we change our adult-created culture of bullying, passing a law to deal with bullying is kind of like shooting spitballs at a charging rhino; the impact will be negligible, similar to that in the 41 states that enacted bullying legislation before Massachusetts.
Bullying, like child abuse, is not an issue that can be legislated away. It is woven into the fabric of our culture, and right now we're just tugging on a few loose threads. This is not meant to be a judgment, but rather an observation from a bully who grew up in a family where verbal, emotional, and physical bullying were passed down from generation to generation like an inheritance. You see, in my opinion, bullies bully because they themselves have been victims or witnesses of bullying, which is to be expected given its pandemic nature.
Bullying occurs in every context in which we as a species interact with each other -- at home, school, our places of worship, and in the workplace. It takes place between social groups, social classes, men and women, even countries, and has been defined in many different ways, although most definitions include "aggressive behavior" and "gaining power over a person or persons."
My Dad was a "do as I say, not as I do" bully, a close relative of the "because I said so" bully, which can be confusing and sound bizarre coming from a person who tells a child that "actions speak louder than words." This was part of a parenting style in the "60s which continues to this day, that framed the environment in which I cut my bullying teeth. There were, of course, other issues, but I ultimately got involved in gang violence, was marked as a "wayward child" ("60s for "at risk") and sent packing to live with relatives in lower Manhattan, where, on one summer's night, when the moon was full, I performed as a werewolf and terrorized a rather large crowd of my peers. It seemed like good fun to me at the time, but in retrospect, a bit scary - a frightening aggressor, an audience of teenagers, some curious, others fearful and a hot summer night. I felt powerful, thriving on the sheer thrill of it, and it could have gotten real ugly. Was that bullying? Was I responding to being bullied?
Reflection on that period calls to mind another feature of my environment, important in any conversation we have on aggressive behavior in today's youth. It's a poem that graced walls and refrigerators in many homes I visited during my wayward youth era. Written by Dorothy Law Nolte, the poem was "Children Learn What They Live." Each line started with the word "if" and suggested first the negative consequences of raising the young with bad feelings, i.e., "If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn... /If children live with hostility, they learn to fight."
This raises a question for me about our approach to dealing with bullying among young people. How are we as adults able to see so clearly and condemn aggressive behavior in our children, while seemingly ignoring the environment they grow up and live in?
For example, it goes without saying in our culture that parents may need to use aggressive behavior to maintain "parental control" of the household, just as teachers and school administrators do to create and maintain the classroom environment. Is this bullying? There is little discussion about aggressive behavior from our children's coaches and instructors. Is bullying permitted in these contexts?
Aggressive behavior is cheered on our playing fields, encouraged in the corporate world, used tactically in the political arena, is not questioned in the theater of war, and is touted as a tool of negotiation on the world stage as nations practice bullying and brinksmanship in a effort to maintain the fragile balance and world order that keeps us all from blowing ourselves off the face of the planet. What do we think our children are learning as they grow up in this environment?
Nolte suggests that they are learning what they're living. Our current response to young people's aggressive behavior, which sometimes leads to senseless violence (see Columbine and dozens of other similar examples) has the ring of "do as I say, not as I do." Toward that end, Nolte says: "If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness." Let's be more honest about aggressive behavior and senseless violence by owning up to the role we each play in its perpetuation as we perform as aggressor, aggressee and audience on our various stages. Let's be truthful and more clear with our children about our own uses of aggressive behavior by exploring the grey areas what is acceptable and what behavior crosses the line -- with them as active participants in the exploration. We might have to do some growing ourselves to even be able to see those shades of grey, let alone speak to them with our children.
At the end of her 12 line piece of sage advice Nolte posed alternative and more beneficial "ifs" we might see if our children live in a positive environment. "If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and others. If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live."
Bully for us when we recognize that in the world of aggressive behavior, regardless of what we call it or who is being the bully -- "we have met the enemy and he is us." Treating bullying like it is some childhood illness is naïve or disingenuous. We must recognize it in ourselves, and then we'll be able to teach young people something about it.