Childhood bullying is one of those things that people think is just part of being a kid, but it really isn’t. Unfortunately, the world isn’t perfect and there will always be kids who feel bad about themselves for whatever reason and take it out on other kids, especially kids who are different in some way. But that doesn’t mean that adults have to just put up with it or teach their kids to put up with it.
Bottom line: people are dying because of bullies. I talk to people every day on the crisis line I work for who want to end their own lives because they can’t take the bullying anymore. Those who aren’t suicidal sometimes want to drop out of school or fail classes because they can’t deal with going.
That’s why putting an end to bullying is so important to me. That and I was one of those kids who was constantly bullied and it took me years to realize that not everybody was going to laugh at me or otherwise try to hurt me so that I could actually feel comfortable socializing with people.
I went to school in the suburbs. I wouldn’t call where I grew up a small town, exactly, but my school district was small enough that there was only one class per grade level in my elementary school, which meant that I went to school with the same kids from first grade through sixth grade. (This was during the days of half-day knidergarten, so half the kids were in the afternoon kindergarten class and I didn’t meet them til the following year.) This was great if you made friends easily because you’d see your friends at school day after day, year after year. But if you were one of the weird kids, like me… one of the kids who didn’t fit in, who read far above grade level, wasn’t athletic, didn’t fit in with girls and wasn’t accepted by boys, that was another story.
In elementary school, there were three types of kids. There were the kids who were pure bullies — two or three boys come to mind who never missed a chance to call me names, shove me or hit me. There were the kids who were my friends — one boy who also got bullied for being friends with a so-called girl and one girl who invited me to her house to do weight training so that the boys who bullied me would be “dead meat” but who I fought with as much as I fought with the bullies. And then there were the kids who were in between, who sometimes would be nice to me and sometimes would make fun of me and I couldn’t figure out the pattern so that I could guess what they would be like on any given day.
In fourth grade it got worse because I started a program for gifted kids. I was in another class two days a week, and the kids in my regular class looked down on me for it. I made friends with a boy in that class, and the kids in the gifted class AND the kids in the regular class saw that as all kinds of wrong because boys weren’t supposed to be friends with “girls” and the kid who had been bullying me since first grade would regularly try to beat us up for it.
Teachers were really no help when it came to childhood bullying because they would say things like, “Don’t be so sensitive. If you don’t get upset they’ll leave you alone.” or make a superficial comment like, “Live and let live” to the bullies that did absolutely nothing except brand me as a crybaby and tattle tale so that I got bullied more. I looked forward to graduating elementary school, naively thinking that bullying was something only little kids did and that I’d have plenty of friends once I got to the higher grades.
I was wrong. I was so wrong. Going to junior high and then high school just meant a bigger pool of people willing to bully me. In junior high kids would “accidentally” bump into me, knocking me down. They would throw their food at me. They would demand my lunch money and try to grab things off my lunch tray if I didn’t give it to them.
Junior high had strict rules about everything but bullying. If you got up from your table you could get in trouble, so there was no walking away when bullies bothered me.
And the school was dedicated to blaming the victims of childhood bullying.
There was a big assembly before school started in which our dean of students told us that if you ignored the bullies it made it fun for them and you’d have more bullies bothering you, but fighting wasn’t allowed so make sure you just looked them in the eye and said something assertive, then walked away. The message was clear: if you got bullied, it was because you handled things wrong, not because the bullies were doing something wrong.
In eighth grade I used to like to wear handkerchiefs in my belt. Kids constantly grabbed them and threw them in the trash. I told the dean of students. He said, “If you don’t want your things stolen, don’t bring them to school.”
The next year I went on to high school. The high school didn’t have a blame the victim policy as far as I know, but I never tried to do anything about the bullying so I’m not sure.
Bullies hung around the lockers a lot. There were times when boys would “accidentally” touch my chest while laughing at the clothes I was wearing. That was confusing as well as upsetting, and I once told a teacher but the boys in question said it was an accident so he didn’t pursue the matter and they continued to do that.
My solution was to stop going to my locker and carry all my books around with me all day. I got made fun of for having a large bookbag, but at least I wasn’t getting touched inappropriately.
There were these kids that said I had to play chess with them for money or they’d beat me up and if I lost and didn’t pay they’d beat me up for that too. I was afraid to say no, but fortunately they never showed for their chess game.
There were the kids who made fun of me for befriending a girl with intellectual disabilities that everyone hated because of her disabilities.
There was the time I wrote an opinion piece for the school paper in which I said I was against the weighting of grades for honors students because it wasn’t fair to non-honors students who tried just as hard to make good grades. Someone else wrote a letter saying that they didn’t appreciate me saying that honors students were all lazy and other things I never said. A group of kids read the letter and surrounded me, yelling in my face that I had no right to say or think the things I supposedly said.
There was the group of boys who yelled stuff at me when I passed them walking home from school, the kids who gave me dirty looks in the restaurants next to campus as if I had some nerve walking into a public place like everyone else, the kids who told me their friend liked me in the hopes I’d believe it so the friend could laugh in my face and say they would never like someone who was as much of a loser as me.
No wonder by my senior year of high school I was a confused, depressed, angry mess. By the time I started college, I had no idea how to make friends, wasn’t sure I could, and preferred to hide from people even though it made me miserable.
I don’t share all of this because I consider myself a victim or want people to feel sorry for me. Obviously I’ve turned things around since then. I have a couple of close friends (though I will always prefer to make friends online than in real life — it’s just easier for a lot of reasons) and I’m not afraid to talk to people anymore. I’m learning the self-assertion skills that I never learned as a kid. I like myself and see myself as someone who is worth something.
But like I said at the beginning, childhood bullying kills. That’s why most of my stories feature kids who are bullied. Bullying is a big part of Now or Never. Emily and Arthur both get bullied and Emily is determined not to let other kids terrify her anymore, and the school administration could care less about what those kids are doing to her and Arthur.
If your child is being bullied, there are a few things you can do. I’ve outlined most of them in my article Spotlight on Bullying.
Briefly, here’s a few things to keep in mind:
Talk to your kids. Keeping the lines of communication open is the most important thing you can do. Talking to your kids about what bullying is helps, but it shouldn’t stop there. Try to be as open and approachable as possible so your kids can talk to you about anything — including bullying.
Point out bullying when you see it. Whether you catch a kid bullying a sibling or see someone acting like a bully on a TV show, address it.
Stand up for your kids. Teachers and administrators don’t always take kids seriously, but they may listen if parents get involved.
Have you been bullied? Have you been dealing with your children’s being bullied? Share your story and your tips for dealing with childhood bullying below.