Bully: A blustering brow beating person; typically one who is habitually cruel to others who are weaker*
October is National Anti-Bullying month. It is important to bring attention to this growing national crisis but this designation also begs the question of how did bullying become such an epidemic in our society that it warrants an awareness month?
It feels as though with increasingly frequency we hear about bullies in the news. The latest (to me) was the heartbreaking story of a twelve year old Lakeland, Florida girl who took her own life after being tormented and harassed by her peers for over a year. In August it was a fifteen year old Connecticut boy and in February it was a Rutgers University freshman. This is just a sampling of the tragic examples of the victims of bullying and sadly the list just goes on. All of these young adults, and in many cases children, had been tormented, verbally abused, and humiliated by peers until they felt as though they just couldn't take the treatment any longer. What is it about our society that allows this behavior to be so prevalent that national newspapers and magazines have repeatedly written articles on the subject? And because the problem appears to be all too common, why are we as a society not doing more to prevent these abusive treatment from occurring in the first place?
First a few facts about bullying courtesy of the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Medical Association:
- Bullying is the most common form of violence in our society with between 15% and 30% of American students either being bullied by others or being bullies themselves. This equates to 3.7 million perpetrators and 3.2 million "victims".
- Direct, physical bullying increases in elementary school, peaks in middle school, and declines in high school. Verbal abuse, including cyber-bullying, remains constant throughout the years.
- 25% of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying or put downs and consequently intervene in only 4% of bullying incidents.
- 65% of American adults report having been bullied in the work place.
As a mother and as a member of society, these facts scare me. All too often, in response to suggestions that bullying is occurring I hear the phrase "kids will be kids" as though perpetuating this behavior is a right of passage. Yes kids will be kids, but when the fine line is crossed between innocent childhood behavior and aggressive abuse, tragedy often ensues. When does name calling and teasing on the playground move from kids play to verbal bullying? Physical bullying, the repeated pushing, shoving, and fighting is relatively easy to recognize but how about the middle school behavior of socially snubbing, excluding others, and spreading rumors? And then there is the (relatively) recent trend of cyber bullying that can invade every aspect of one's life. As was the case with the Florida girl cited above, she tried to avoid her cyber tormentors but short of cutting herself off from the entire world, was unable to avoid them.
But bullying behavior isn't limited to children and teens. Often I see parents, grown adults who should know better, exhibiting bullying behavior. It might be in the form of being overly aggressive on the sidelines of the sports field, spreading rumors about a fellow parent at the PTA, or even being a bully in the workplace. There was the news headline a few years ago about the hockey dad who beat another father to death at a middle school hockey game. I'm willing to bet this wasn't the first time this perpetrator exhibited bulling behavior in public. But man acts may be subtle but they hurt and are dangerous just the same. Others may be dismissed as simply being an aggressive, but harmless, personality but if the behavior is repeated and intentionally hurts others, it isn't harmless to the person to whom the angry behavior is directed towards.
It makes me wonder what kind of example do these adult behaviors set for our children since as parents, we are the role models for the next generation. Too often when I've seen children exhibiting bad behavior I only have to look at their parents to see where they are learning how to act this way. If our children hear us disrespecting others and name calling or worse, what is to stop them from doing the same? After all, to impressionable minds, if adults are doing it, it must be OK. Were these adults bullies as children or were they themselves bullied as teenagers and in turn became bullies as a coping mechanism? I believe bullying behavior is learned so where was the classroom or environment where this was learned?
I have no idea what the answers are but because this is National Anti-Bullying month we can each do our own part by helping to raise awareness about this epidemic in our own communities. We can call out the bullying behavior we witness and we can educate others on how to recognize and stop it as well. We can teach our children how to respect one another and to treat each other with kindness. It is perfectly acceptable to not like every person but that doesn't give anyone permission to make other's lives miserable. This sounds like a small step but we need to start somewhere and this is as good of a place as any.
* Merriam Webster Dictionary