Why Talking About Bullying Doesn’t Work

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that
we belong to each other.” – Mother Theresa

When I was younger, I used to get bullied quite a bit. In elementary school I was taller than most, bigger than many. I stuck out. And when you stick out, you become a target. And it sucked. But there wasn’t much I could do to stop it. I told one of the moms on the playground that these kids were making fun of me and I wish they’d stop and she said I should “grow a thicker skin.”

I was 8 years old.

Flash forward a few years and here we are. We see anti-bullying campaigns left and right. Too many teenagers have decided they couldn’t stand being bullied and so they decided it would be better to be dead than alive, and they killed themselves. It’s tragic. So we keep talking about bullying. We tell teenagers they shouldn’t be bullies. We also tell them that if they’re being bullied, the solution to that problem is to tell an adult. But here’s the problem…

Nobody uses the term “bully” inside a high school.

In the high school social setting, nobody uses the term bully and bullied. Once someone is tagged with that label, they stick out. And when you stick out, you become a target. No matter what people do, one thing they will refuse to accept is the title of bully. Listen to a high schooler talk about all the “drama” going on in their school day. Often times it’ll be trivialized. As in, “Oh don’t worry about that. It’s just some drama.”

By using the term “drama” the people involved are exempt from moving up or down the social ladder as would surely happen if they were stuck with the label “bully” or “bullied”.

This is why all kinds of anti-bullying efforts don’t work. Nobody is willing to stop being something that nobody will own up to being in the first place. You can tell me to stop being a bully all you want, but if I don’t see myself as a bully, your pleas will fall on deaf ears. This is why anti-bullying doesn’t work.

Instead…

Don’t focus on what people shouldn’t be. Focus on what they should be.

Instead of telling people to not be a bully, it would be much more effective to teach respect. Mother Theresa was once asked why she never participates in anti-war rallies. Her response was telling. She said she would keep her promise to never participate in an anti-war rally, but as soon as someone hosted a pro-peace rally, she’d be the first to sign up. It’s an interesting way to tilt the conversation.

Another contributor to this conversation was the “It Gets Better” campaign. Check this link out for more info about that campaign. It is specifically geared toward GLBTQ youth who have been/are being bullied. The more I thought about “It Gets Better”, I liked the initiative, but something was lacking. It essentially tells people who are being bullied to weather the storm and trust that it gets better. That doesn’t sit well with me.

Enter the Make It Better project. This is the “pro-peace” alternative to It Gets Better’s “anti-war” stance. Don’t get me wrong, both campaigns have great goals and strategies to work toward. But there’s a disconnect.

Instead of going back and forth on the topic of bullying, why don’t we tackle these “dramatic” situations, name what is actually happening, and then promote a move toward empathy and compassion? Is this overly-simplistic? Perhaps. But when we are so dead set against bullying, we miss out on all the things we can be encouraging and promoting in our schools, churches, and neighborhoods.

Talking about bullying doesn’t work because nobody recognizes their behavior [or identity for that matter] as falling in line with the “bully” or “bullied”. We need to empower people to speak out and name what is happening in their own experience before it’s too late.

It might also be helpful for adults to abolish the suggestion to “grow a thicker skin”. But that might just be a personal preference.

Cheers,
Eric

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Comments

  1. Ian McConnell says:

    In the St. Louis Park, MN community, there is an annual award and ceremony called the “Caring Youth Award”. These awards are given to a number of middle-and-high-school-aged students by the schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, sports teams, and a variety of other organizations.

    Media shows up each year to report. There is a big dinner and celebration in a fancy hotel ballroom. This is exactly the kind of thing communities should celebrate and get behind: lifting up those who make a positive impact on the lives of others.

    Thanks for this post, Eric. I’ll be thinking about it all day.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ian. And what a great kind of positive re-inforcement! It sends such a powerful message to youth (and, really, to the entire community) that it is worth the time, effort, and money to highlight and celebrate the positive actions (not just thoughts or ideas) of youth. I think that’s an excellent example.

Please keep your comments positive. I reserve the right to delete rude or insulting comments. If your comment is critical, please make sure it is also constructive. Thank you.

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