Dealing with bullying

“The best revenge is to be unlike the person who meant you harm.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)

When I was growing up, I dealt with only one personal experience of bullying.

My family lived in Los Angeles during the 1980s and 1990s, the era of the Rodney King riots and much racial strife. If you attended Los Angeles public schools during that period, it was inevitable that you had some contact with gangs. And I don’t mean “gang” like Joe Biden’s adventures with Corn Pop at the community pool in (lol) Delaware. I mean legitimate gangs.

When I was in middle school, there was a teenager (still in middle school) who would attack me nearly every day with a group of her friends. All of these girls came from families associated with the Crips. Despite whatever mystique surrounds the violent environment they were brought up in, I fully understood what made me a target of their animosity. I was a bookish kid who played by the rules and was consistently rewarded for it by adults. I came from a traditional family that was still intact. I had the stability they craved but lacked.

Bullying in schools – even schools that were routinely plagued by violence – was actually resolved and addressed by administrators back then. Classrooms were not about “accommodating” students with serial problems. After the third or fourth episode, the principal of our school made it clear the girls would be expelled and their parents would have to find an education option for them outside of the city, or they would have to attend private schools. To a poor family in Los Angeles, that was tantamount to saying “you keep this up, and your formal education stops in middle school.” That was sufficient for their mamas to explain the rules of life to them in terms that they would finally appreciate.

They stopped. In fact, after that come to Jesus moment, they started giving me high-fives in the hallway. I’m pretty sure I was the only white girl in Los Angeles at that time on friendly terms with junior Crips, and I did absolutely nothing on my own to bring that about except complain to a trusted authority figure.

It was an early education in how public school administrators primarily exist to keep kids traveling in their own lanes rather than insisting on them reaching any particular destination. I went on to be an investment banker, government economist, bond analyst, and eventually have a fintech enterprise. They most likely went to prison. Was great education policy at work in Los Angeles public schools? No. But the administrator prevented us from getting us into a wreck, and he probably thought that was the best that could be done given the profile of individuals involved. He wasn’t going to attempt to cure what was happening in those girls’ lives that landed them in his office.

For most of my adult life, I imagined that was an unusual personal experience. Through high school and college, I had not met another person who had experienced physical bullying, let alone physical bullying in the hands of individuals who really could have killed them if they so chose. That’s really not that extreme of an experience for kids now.

My sense from watching children interact now is that most kids have not only experienced bullying, but are experiencing it on a continued basis in person and online. Our daughter’s reports on what children say to each other on the playground are unreal.

I’m sure a not insignificant factor in this is social media. And I don’t simply mean the kids trolling and being trolled on social media, but their having parents who are engaged in the same behavior on a regular basis. Even elementary school-aged children use vocabulary like “unfriending.” Kids who can’t even read yet are consumed with fear of exile and an incremental supply of approval. This is the language that their parents, older siblings, and even their grandparents use around them and they imitate it enthusiastically.

Children are just kind of marinating in this sort of drama. Rather than being some standout event in someone’s emotional development, it is the new normal for children. Passing judgment, piling on, and forming cliques has replaced tag as a form of entertainment.

Our daughter is fairly sheltered from much of this behavior because she’s homeschooled and not on social media. She really only observes it in person. I have also spent a lot of time preempting this nonsense by telling her that if someone belittles her, she should simply ignore it and physically get up and find somewhere else to play. And by no means take a bully’s words to heart.

She’s grown up with me quoting Aristotle and stoic philosophers continuously, and one of my favorite responses to reported nastiness is to quote Marcus Aurelius, “the best revenge is to be unlike the person who did you harm.” The most effective punishment for a bully is for their target to continue living a good life, oblivious to any effort to undermine it.

She has internalized these words by now. When a child says something cruel to her, her main reaction is confusion and curiosity, not injury. What is going on in their personal life that motivates them to act this way? Is it possible to convert them to normalcy?

But even as I see the success of that advice, I question its wisdom sometimes. I have noticed that kids who do not get attention from negative behavior don’t always adapt in predictable ways (such as being kind instead, as in my example above).

Social media (really, having everything people consume directed by algorithms) has channelized the way many people think and respond. They no longer experiment with ways to get attention. They only know one way to behave when they fail to get the reaction they want, and that is to crank the volume up. I called you Four Eyes and you ignored me, so now I have to break your glasses. Rinse, repeat. Amplify instead of adapt.

They are also accustomed to people they attack responding in kind. It’s perversely unsurprising watching these patterns unfold that you have 12-year-olds telling their peers to commit suicide. They have been trained that the best way to get attention is to do ever more egregious things. In many ways, the way social media is training kids to think is also pushing them to do things like shoot up their school.

It has made me think, however, that the advice of the stoics is mostly about warding off the practical consequences of allowing yourself to have a low self-esteem. Teaching a kid how to avoid children who have the potential to do them actual, physical harm is a totally separate issue.

I wrote last night about the problems kids have processing the incoherent, unfounded in reality political rage of adults, but the fact that this sort of obsessive, hounding behavior is actually more generalized than that. They carry the lessons and rituals of angry adults into their own little microcosms.

I tell people all the time that the best thing you can do for your child’s intellectual and emotional development is to plunge yourself into an assortment of hobbies, interests, and passions. From an education standpoint, you are modeling being a lifetime learner for your kids, which is a critical component of a life well-lived. But beyond that, you are supplying them with content to care about instead of being obsessed with other people. And that’s a pretty big deal nowadays.

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