Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week I want to talk about bullying and how we can reduce its effects on our kids.
Another horrific case of online bullying recently hit the news. Twelve-year-old Rebecca Sedwick climbed a water tower and jumped to her death after being taunted and attacked by a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. The sheriff in Florida arrested the two instigators and released their pictures. While the charges have since been dropped, the bullies’ parents have done the news circuit.
As I watched a bit of the media circus, it became clear that these bullies were absolute losers. They weren’t going anywhere in life. And while the victim’s mother appears eloquent, these kids’ parents (one of whom has since been charged with child abuse herself) show that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
We think that the way to battle bullying is holding character classes in schools, monitoring our children’s Facebook, and encouraging intervention by school officials. But I think we’re missing a key ingredient about why bullying is so devastating: to these kids, their peer group–pathetic as it may be–is their whole life. When peers turn on them, they feel completely alone and useless.
Listening to the story in Florida, I found myself wishing that Rebecca could have had some perspective. I’m a relatively happily well-adjusted forty-something woman (notwithstanding those hormonal surges), and I never, ever talk to anyone I knew in middle school or high school. If I were to see them on the street, I doubt I’d remember who most of them were.
In school you’re thrown together, through no choice of your own, with kids of the same age. As an adult, you don’t have to restrict your friends to those born in the same calendar year, and you’re free to choose friends that you actually like. Most adults I know do not hang around with people they knew in school. Those kids, who wield so much power over you at fourteen, are forgotten at 34.
If teens could just understand that their current tormentors won’t matter at all in just a few short years, then perhaps we’d have fewer kids devastated by bullying.
What we need more than character classes, then, is to give our kids perspective. I survived high school by simply not bothering much with my peers. Although I had pleasant conversations with many classmates, I walked home for lunch everyday so I didn’t have to sit in the cafeteria. My life revolved around my church youth group and my two part-time jobs, where I worked with people of a variety of ages. I spent most of my social time outside the school, so school really didn’t matter.
Part-time jobs can help students feel confident while giving them exposure to other adults who take an interest in them. Getting involved in a place of worship helps kids get plugged in with others who were not all born in the same birth year, while also introducing them to other teens who perhaps don’t go to their school. Cultivating an area of excellence outside of the school, whether it’s in sports or music or a craft, can help kids have something else to concentrate on that can give them a sense of self-worth.
School is so unimportant in the broader scheme of things, but it’s hard for kids to see that when they’re in the throes of teenage angst. Anything we can do to enlarge their world now will diminish the power of bullies to aim those arrows. Yes, words will always hurt, but if teens know “there are other people who care about me”, “I know I am good at something”, or “these kids’ worlds are so pathetic compared to mine”, then much of the sting will be gone.
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