Monday, April 26, 2010

Some Thoughts on Bullying

[ETA: apologies for the long-ass post. I wrote it over a week and with great care, hoping to get it right. This is an issue I feel strongly about and would love to generate more critical, thoughtful dialogue around. The next few posts will be bite-sized, I promise, to make up for it ;)]

The topic of bullying has come up a lot lately and has taken up much of my mental real estate. The term "bullying" never sat right with me and I had to give it a good sitdown to figure out why. I guess it reminds me a bit of how the AIDS crisis didn't become a CRISIS until Rock Hudson or Magic Johnson came out with it. And then suddenly it had a name and a face that brought it home. Before then, it was countless folks in the gay community, and masses of black and brown people in Africa and India who were dying silently from a disease no one wanted to talk about.

That's how this bullying thing feels to me. Kids have been bullied forever. It's about abuse of power - something children learn is a sanctioned practice in our world. In the world around them, wealthy nations bully those nations with less monetary wealth by bringing them to their knees with debt and impossible-to-repay loans. In the world around our young people, women are bullied into living up to impossible standards of beauty - sometimes carving themselves up, or dying on operating tables to achieve those standards. Working parents are bullied into putting in too many hours for not enough pay while their children are in the hands of inadequate, underfunded childcare. Same-sex couples who've been together for decades are denied basic spousal rights. This is the world we live in with our children, and many are taught it is a right and just world where everything is fine. That nothing needs to be questioned and nothing needs to be challenged.

I think of some of the most recent cases of bullying to have made headlines--all ending in suicide or murder, after relentless abuse by their peers: Reena Virk, murdered; Matthew Shepard, murdered; Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, suicide; Brandon Teena (upon whose story the film Boys Don't Cry was based), murdered; and most recently, Phoebe Prince, suicide. A brown girl, a gay white teen, a black middle-schooler (taunted for being gay), a lesbian reportedly planning sexual reassignment surgery, and an Irish female immigrant, respectively. Children are very astute. They record every detail and reflect it back. They learn early what is considered valuable in their world and what is devalued. They learn early what they can get away with devaluing and what they will be punished for devaluing. They learn, too, how to use their own power in the ways they see power being used and abused around them.

In every case I've read about bullying, and in my own experience, there were those adults and authority figures who were complicit in the bullying by either turning the other way, or tacitly approving the victimization. And then, of course, there are the systemic infrastructures that privilege some with unearned power over others while never requiring the privileged to acknowledge or even recognize their privilege - lulling them into believing that it is not only deserved, but right. And that those who don't have privilege don't deserve it or haven't earned it.

When I was growing up, we were all bullied - only then we called it racism, and our parents dared not name it for fear of any number of repercussions. Today, my eight-year-old gets bullied and there are "This Is A No-Bullying Zone" signs in the halls of her school. And yet, she is still bullied, and she's not the only one. I've talked to other parents as we agonized over how to deal with it. The toughest part is that, like many of her classmates, she often seeks the approval of the girls who treat her the worst. She wants to be liked by the girls who don't like her. Despite all our efforts at home, she looks out into the world and sees no reflection of her fierce little self. And then believes she's less-than. She comes home and wants to be blonde because, until last year, there were no brown princesses. And when I read about cases like Reena Virk's and Brandon Teena's, I wonder whether seeking approval from the very folks who view you as "lesser" is a common dynamic. And I think - why wouldn't it be, especially as children move up into middle and high school where social acceptance is survival?

So I stopped looking at the issue in terms of "how to stop bullying". I thought, instead, of that classic case of bullying - where a woman is married to a man who beats her. Again, here is a woman who wants to be liked - or in this case, loved - by someone who sees her as less-than. And I thought back to my days in shelters and on hotlines and at demonstrations...what did we do? What were the steps we took?

It was a multi-pronged, grassroots, bottom-up approach. We addressed the issue on many levels: personal, social, political, and economic. The first thing was to empower the woman. She had to believe she was valuable and worthy of better relationships. Next was to present her with options, while working to create more options (shelters, childcare, hotlines, etc.). Then, there was becoming a vocal advocate for women's rights and working, in whatever capacity, for systemic change; finding lawyers who would take pro-bono cases; creating childcare co-ops; and finding or creating affordable housing for single mothers. This wasn't about blaming the victim - it was about focusing on the woman who, very often, up until that point, was functioning in a system that considered her voiceless and unimportant--and empowering her. Then, there was lobbying for stricter punishments and laws for offenders. But this was *at the same time* as building the self-esteem of women and girls who were in abusive relationships and helping them to spot red flags before tragedy.

When I put this in the context of bullying or peer-terrorism among teens, I see how a multi-pronged approach could also be effective. So first, we start with empowering the kids who are easy targets - kids who are quiet, seen as different in some way, who don't fit easily into the mainstream. These would most likely be children and teens of colour, children and teens who don't fit into culturally accepted notions of "feminine" and "masculine", working class kids, etc. We help them find their voices. We help them see that even if their own parents don't see the beauty in them, there is great beauty there. Beauty worth defending and fighting for.

Perhaps this is where children's/MG/YA writers come in. Those of us who stir a little bit of activism into our work (whether we call it that or not) have been giving voice to the silenced since we started putting stories out into the world. It's part of what motivates us and the reason our writing is so important to us. It's the reason the Judy Blumes and S.E. Hintons meant so much to me when I was growing up - they created worlds where girls like me were okay, when we weren't okay in our own worlds. And it's the reason getting under-represented and marginalized voices into print, in the media, and in cultural products is so important. More stories means more perspectives means lots of different values out there.

Next, we present options. Maybe we set up a station at school where anyone who feels truly threatened can go with guaranteed privacy to talk to a qualified professional--a bullying expert of sorts. Someone well-versed in the issues, who has been trained to spot red flags and offer real support and solutions. Or maybe there's a hotline set up for teens and pre-teens to call anonymously if they know something is in the works or being planned against a fellow classmate; and for those who are going through bullying to call and talk to a supportive listener who can offer resources and places to turn if the adults around them aren't listening.

Then, becoming a vocal advocate for the rights of those children and teens who fall outside the margins and working toward systemic change. Again, authors, writers, agents, editors, booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers in the publishing industry can play a significant role here. In recent years, there have been more books by people of colour, LGBTQ writers, and working class authors than when I was coming up, but we have a long way to go. Part of empowering young people is to show them reflections of themselves as powerful, valuable, important members of their communities - no less deserving of privilege, love, wealth, dignity and respect than their peers. I know from experience that stories do that. Stories heal and mend and expand. Stories in books, stories in the news, stories in film, on television and in magazines. It's part of the reason I started writing to begin with. I read stories that showed me More. Showed me hope and possibility and another way of being. And I still believe there are those in the publishing industry who are in this for more than just the profit motive - those agents (like mine!), editors, booksellers, etc., who are committed to the young people they serve. The young people we all serve.

Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall recently started Young Adult Authors Against Bullying on Facebook. While I haven't joined the group (this deserves a more complicated post on my relationship with Fb), I whole-heartedly support their efforts. Where some of us might have called it "the way things are" at one point, the issue now has a name--a place to begin. And that helps all our children. In a world of power ab/use where we are pitted against one another in complex ways, addressing power inequities has to start somewhere - and with young minds.


Anonymous said...

Linked to your post on my blog, and on DP.

Mrs. Pilkington said...

understanding that this is not just the work of a few warped individuals but a system that sanctions (and rewards) abuses of power is a vital first step. and the "multi-pronged, grassroots, bottom-up approach", small, meaningful action with that systemic change in mind -- yes-ses all round.

Anonymous said...

I began a comment, but it grew into a post of my own. I guess this topic has been brewing with me for a while

Julie Polk said...

What a great post. In an age where arts budgets are being cut as extraneous expenditures, I think it's critical to keep pointing out the very real impact writers can have on the obdurate problems we face.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Great post, Neesha. When you mention kids who are most vulnerable to bullying, you should also mention those with Asperger's and other autism spectrum disorders. Although children with Asperger's tend to do well in their schoolwork, they have social deficiencies that make them principal targets of bullies everywhere. And adults with Asperger's continue to be bullied and exploited in workplaces.

Despite our greater awareness of autism (and excellent MG and YA books like Nora Raleigh Baskin's Anything But Typical and Francisco X. Stork's Marcelo in the Real World), parents of children with Asperger's and other high-functioning autism spectrum disorders often remain in denial. There's a lot of blaming the victim too, because these youngsters make a lot of social mistakes, including extraordinarily persistent and clumsy efforts to get into the "in-crowd" of those doing the bullying.

What's especially sad and frustrating--and well demonstrated in the novels by both Baskin and Stork--is that these youngsters have so much to offer, that with deficiencies in certain areas come special powers in others. How can we as a society benefit from the contributions of people with a different take on reality, while protecting them from rigid and often malevolent institutions and individuals?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Neesha. (pointed here by Le Re)

I especially like the point about the bullied kids wanting the bullies to like them. In my experience, there are a few types of bullying. The one that comes to mind here is friend-bullying, where in a group, one person is generally designated as "the dog" of the group, and is kept around to be the target of bullying and abuse by the other group members. I hate to cite gossip girl, but if you've ever seen the show, I think you know what I'm talking about.

It's also important to consider that the more visible differences are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bullying. You don't have to have Asperger's to have poor social skills, and things as simple as a favorite hobby that is either uncommon or considered childish are enough to make you a target. The issue gets even worse when authority figures get involved.

chitogr54 said...

Neesha, I read with interest your post on bullying. It is straightforward and honest especially when it tackles the bullying of working parents who are coerced into putting in too many hours for not enough pay while their children are in the hands of inadequate, underfunded childcare.
But it might be the parents fault when they chose these poorly equipped childcare centers. I just read in this link- Daycare that the creative arts, including music, movement, dramatic play, puppetry, painting, sculpture, and drawing, are a crucial part of early childhood. Not only do the arts allow children to express themselves, but creative activity can enhance development of children's skills in literacy, science, math, social studies, and more. Parents owe it to their children to choose the best for them.

Tahereh said...

here here!

that was beautiful.

we need more of you.

Neesha Meminger said...

Great points, Julie, Lyn, and atsiko.

@ chitogr54: Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. I totally agree that parents play a hugely significant role in the lives of children. Absolutely, without doubt, no question. And at the same time, I know there are places in the world where even the cheapest childcare has to meet stringent government guidelines. Where *all* parents can go to work, rest assured, that their children are in capable, safe, protective, *qualified* hands. Some places have childcare ON THE PREMISES so that parents can see their kids during breaks and lunch. Some places provide financial assistance to parents who need childcare in order to work. Many working parents here in the US pay a significant chunk of their salaries to childcare (which is NOT an option if they want to eat and pay rent).

So I'm totally with you on choosing what's best from within your array of options, and at the same time, I want to be mindful of the fact that for many, those options are greatly reduced due to finances.

Claire M. Caterer said...

Neesha, I found your blog on The Rejectionist and so applaud your bringing this issue to light. Lyn, fantastic point about kids with AS. When you add up all the "different" kids--whether different because of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity--you wonder who this "normal" majority is that perpetuates the misery? Sadly, it's not just "them"--it's us. If we don't take action, we're part of the problem.

Kristi's Book Nook said...

This is a great post. Bullying has been around for a long time and no one has taken it on to stop it. Parents need to be more involved with their children to stop it in its tracks.

lora96 said...


Your examination of this topic is deeply appreciated, thank you.
As an elementary teacher, I see and combat daily the bullying of which you speak. My response is always to focus on the individual being bullied, to put the power in their hands to say, "My name is Chloe and that is the ONLY THING you may call me." and also the restorative method in which the bully must announce to the group three specific positive qualities of the individual she bullied.

Neesha Meminger said...

@lora96 - brava! I love your approach.

Mrs. Pilkington said...

such a helpful discussion. @lora96 -- that's fantastic! Would love to use that approach in a current workshop.

Dee / Cloth Company said...

Never apologize for a lengthy post that is this thoughtful!

Many things to respond to here, but three things jump out for me. One is that I think your idea of applying the feminist, grassroots approach to change is inspired (even tho I have a little trouble imagining it in practice).

Two, is that even though I live near Boston where the Phoebe Prince story was reported in some depth, I had not heard about gender issues at all. I don't always read the newspaper that carefully, but I watch local news every morning and that was not a part of the coverage (and in THAT case, unlike some others, the lack of response by adults charged with caring for students was egregious)

The third thing is that I disagree that parents are always somehow tacitly or explicitly involved in bullying behavior. For one thing, communication has become so fluid, rapid, and communal that the rules have really changed. And adolescence has NOT changed, so at some point, what is being communicated happens outside of our range. The other reason that I don't think parents are always involved is that cruelty is often meted out by very intelligent perpetrators who know how to cultivate false personae and stay out of the lines of observation. Not all bullies are like Nelson on the Simpsons, hulking clods who obviously have it in for someone. In fact, one of the ways that the digital era has changed the conversation about bullying is that it has made FEMALE cruelty more observable.

MissA said...

yes, Yes, YES, YES! This post, all the comments, make me so happy. Reading about all the victims makes me sad, but Phoebe Prince, Matthew Shepherd, etc will hopefully not have died in vain. all this awareness being raised will pay off, I so appreciate and love all you authors getting behind this cuase and stopping bullying and being activists :)

I Tweeted this and linked to it on my blog

Doret said...

Many times victims of bullying have low self esteem because something is wrong at home. And the stronger kids simply pray on that.

I am speaking from experience. I hated middle school and I had no self esteem. It sucks to have to deal with things at home and than have to take crap at school.

I think bullies are allowed to thrive because no one speaks out. Sometimes, victims aren't strong enough for whatever reason to stand up for themselves.

But then there are the teachers and adults who stand by and do nothing.

I have a very hard time believing teachers don't know the personilities of their students. Usually the bullies are the popular kids, or the smartasses.

I don't think bullying is ever going to go away but its gotten to an crazy extreme, and it almost seems acceptable.

Adults should listen when a child says they are being bullied. And not dismiss it with an "oh that's just apart of growing up."

Children who are being bullied at school aren't running to teachers because they know it not going to make a difference

That needs to change.

Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of adults underestimate kids. If they could have dealt with it on their own, they would have. They're a lot more "grown-up" than you'd think. :(

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