My Bully Pulpit

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” (James Baldwin)

DSCN3317I don’t have kids. Every time I am moved to write about kids, I feel obliged to footnote that fact. I’ve never been in the trenches of raising them, of watching them take first steps and then fall on their butts, of witnessing them learn and grow and miraculously develop into autonomous little humans. I haven’t vicariously shared their wins, their losses, or their wounds—and felt these so deeply that I feared my heart would break.

Nonetheless, my heart does break when I read about the gauntlet of bullying so many children face on their journey to adulthood. I’ve written about bullying a lot, in this blog, and in my book.

For some kids, the pandemic offered a respite from bullying. Remote schooling provided a break from name-calling, playground taunts, and the accompanying shame and insecurity. However, remote schooling came with a cost—many costs. We’re learning that many kids are now lagging a year or more behind in academic skills. They’re reading at lower levels, and testing poorly in nearly every subject.

And it’s not just academics that have fallen behind. Studies are now showing that kids have lost a year or more in their social development. One way this is manifesting now that schools have resumed in-person learning is that bullying is back and often worse than ever.

In a recent opinion piece, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Maureen Downey cites recent studies highlighting the increase in bullying among middle-school and high-school-age kids. While bullying comes in many forms, “relational aggression,” is the most frequent. It’s not physical bullying—like kicking, shoving, or punching—but rather it centers on social exclusion: shunning, spreading harmful rumors, and excluding kids from activities with their peers. These actions are just as harmful as physical bullying.

In that same article, Erin Mason, professor of counseling at Georgia State University, says school counselors are noting delayed social maturation. “This social delay is because students have not been in normal situations over the past two-plus years where they could experience normal social development. All of that was disrupted.”

Mason also cites “the political divide happening in our country” as another reason for increased bullying. “Kids soak up what they see online and in the media. In many cases, they may be acting out what they’re seeing.”

In my last post, I wrote about a couple of big bullies, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his Texas counterpart, Greg Abbott. Tweedledee and Tweedledum have been proudly and gleefully abandoning migrants—as if they were nothing more than human debris—in cities where they will become the problem of “the libs.” That these “gentlemen” are in positions of power—at least one of them aspiring to the White House in 2024—is both scary and shameful. They are demonstrating the worst of eighth-grade behaviors. And unless we the voters intervene, they will continue to offer themselves as negative—but high profile—role models.

What’s the solution? Like most complex situations, there isn’t a single answer that will address such a pervasive challenge. But most experts agree that parents can’t ignore what’s happening, they need to talk with their kids. About the kinds of bullying we’re seeing in the media and among politicians and celebrities, and about the specific instances of bullying their kids may be seeing or experiencing at school.

And it’s not just the kids who are being bullied with whom conversations need to take place. Kids who engage in bullying need help, too. The messages they’ve absorbed about how to be popular or accepted have led them to become aggressors. They may not be aware that alternative behavioral pathways are open to them. Of course, if a child-bully’s parent is also a bully—which is very often the case—parental conversations may not be a solution. Teachers and school counselors have an important role in the bullying dynamic. So do other adults in a child’s life.

Conversations also need to take place with that substantial majority of kids who are neither bullies nor bullied. As bystanders, they have the power to egg on a bully or to shut them down. A lot of kids do nothing, because they’re afraid the bully may turn on them, but studies show that if one kid has the courage to speak up, to take the side of the child being bullied, to say “stop, that’s not cool,” others will join in and the bully will stop.

And how about us adult bystanders? Are we going to stay silent when we see politicians, celebrities, or the guy down the street bullying people and dehumanizing them? Are we going to just tsk-tsk as they bully their way through our courts, and into the highest offices in the land? Or are we going to speak out loudly, and amplify our voices by how we vote, how we support candidates, and how we model good behavior?

Though I don’t have kids, I have a lot of hope that kids are going to lead a crusade that will turn this world back in a positive direction—socially, politically, and environmentally. We’ve failed them in so many ways. Can we help them become better people than we are?

“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”  (L.R. Knost)

16 thoughts on “My Bully Pulpit

  1. I hadn’t heard about the increase in childhood bullying but now that you explain it, I get it. I’m sure that beyond the two years of non-socialization it hasn’t helped that The Donald et al have been in the news, demonstrating less than polite behavior. I find the last quote interesting. It’s a point of view that suggests hope in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ally, it doesn’t help that the media incessantly replays the nasty behavior and comments of high-profile bullies, and then often snickers, rather than condemns. I hope kids are smart enough to recognize a desperate loser when they see one.

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  2. Why the baddies are often glorified will remain a mystery to me. And the bullying – if one realised that the harm one does to another is also harmful to oneself, I would think that one wouldn’t be a bully – but this isn’t the case. Thought provoking post Barbara thank you –

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    • It’s a mystery to me, too, Susan. I just finished reading Dan Pink’s wonderful book, The Power of Regret, and it was startling to see how many adults say their biggest regret was having bullied someone when they were young and didn’t know any better. If only kids could foresee that they would have a lifetime of regret for being a bully.

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    • So true, Neil, but we get glimpses of paradise when we see the autumn leaves turning, or myriad examples of art on wheels in Philadelphia, and when we’re taken by happy surprise to see people behaving considerately. I’m going to cling to the belief that good will prevail over evil and that kind will overcome mean. I’m just not holding my breath….

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  3. Personally, that’s why I hate reality TV. The worse the people on them act, the more screen time they get. We can talk all we want about discouraging bullying in children, I think, but when they see it rewarded on television, they’re getting the message that it’s not only okay, it’s celebrated. Our partisan political situation doesn’t help either…the way the parties talk about each other also teaches kids that it’s okay to name call as long as the people they’re bullying “deserve it.” The trouble is, everyone thinks their enemies “deserve it.” We have to do better, because you’re absolutely right: the children are watching.

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    • You are so right about reality TV, Ann! They don’t want people who are compassionate and polite. They want the screamers, bullies, and inciters. It’s all about ratings. My hope is that if enough of us say, “I won’t watch that stuff,” maybe the reality trend will evolve to something more pleasant. I’m hoping this partisan chasm of hate and distrust is a polarity that will swing back toward a more reasonable center soon, but am seeing little signs of that happening. We can hope and do our small part to model better behaviors. Thanks, Ann!

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  4. I was taken by your Knost quote. I have not heard that before, and many thanks for introducing me to it. It reminded me of the story where a wise woman was asked what is the first sign of civilization. People expected answers that centered around a technological advance: an obsidian axe or a metal fishhook. The wise woman said that the first sign of civilization was a mended femur, because that’s a broken femur is a serious enough injury that without care you would die, and having a mended one means that you’ve had someone take care of you and that that is the first sign of civilization

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    • What an interesting reflection on the first sign of a civilized, caring society. Makes great sense. Glad you like the Knost quote. The Angelou quote on your site is one of my very favorites. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do very much, and I enjoy reading and collecting quotes: I feel there’s great wisdom condensed in a few words … in the good ones. And thanks for the compliment on the selection of the Angelou quote 🙂

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  5. I don’t remember being bullied, nor do I remember bullying anyone. But insulting one another was quite common. I never took it seriously, but I guess many did. Only, recently did I learn why I wasn’t bullied. My friend Connell, said he was bullied because he was very tall. People even wanted to pick fights with him. He said I wasn’t bullied because I was of average height, had average looks, got average grades, and had average clothes — I just didn’t stand out.

    But I also remembered seeing kids being bullied and it scared me. I wasn’t brave enough to take up for them. I think this might be why I’m an introvert. I learned to stay out of the way.

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    • That’s impressive self-awareness. Recognizing that there’s safety in being/appearing average. And also how it might explain being an introvert. I think unless kids are expressly given tools for how to stand up for someone being bullied, they will most likely stay silent and just hope not to attract the bully’s attention. I’d like to know what happened to the bullies in my elementary school. Did they grow up to be big bullies, or did they somehow learn that there were other ways to get attention or feel important?


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