An epidemic of bullying

Posted Oct 4 2010, 3:01 am in

It’s happened again.

Another child, bullied to death.  Last week, Ellen DeGeneres made this plea to end bullying following the suicide of a Rutgers student. The student’s dorm roommates secretly filmed him having sex and then posted the video online with the explicit intent of outing him as a homosexual, humiliating him literally to death.

Though this is a senseless and cruel act, that’s not what disturbs me about this. What I find most upsetting is that this particular incident – the latest in a summer filled with similar tragedies – is that the perpetrators were college students, not elementary or middle school age, but legal adults according to the law, old enough to vote, and old enough to know better.

Bullying gets a lot of lip service but whatever we’re doing to prevent kids from growing into adult bullies obviously isn’t enough. Look, I’m not out of touch with reality.  Mine is a two-kid, two-income household with all the responsibilities and chaos the two kids and two jobs produce.  I’ve had a four-foot hole in my ceiling for the past year. I drove an eleven-year old car with no air-conditioning all summer.  Repair jobs have to take a number in my life so yes, stress and I are intimately acquainted. Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to let the stress and the chores and the exhaustion and all the other stuff remove us from our kids’ lives.

You’re probably thinking, “Oh, I know my kid. He or she would never do that.” I’m pretty sure the parents of every kid involved in these recent bullying incidents had the same thought.  Don’t believe me? Okay. Consider the times you’ve left your child with a sitter or a friend for a play date.  How many excellent reports have you received? You know, the kind where you hear how the same child who can’t remember to say please and thank you at home is suddenly Miss Manners at the neighbor’s house.  Ask any parent and I promise you, they have a similar story about how their child behaves differently outside of the home.

Sometimes, “differently” isn’t always positive and much as we hate to admit that, we can no longer afford to deny it.

When my oldest was in sixth grade, I nearly lost him. And had absolutely no idea. Sixth grade was a tough year for him. New school, plus he was in the throes of puberty complete with bad skin, a massive growth spurt, changing voice and body hair. Lots of body hair. Though he stood head and shoulders taller than everyone in his class, his former friends, still little boys, thought it would be great fun to tease my son about all the changes his body was undergoing.  Every day. For the entire school term.

Where was I? I was working, keeping the house, driving boys to and from various activities, and blaming his moodiness on hormones… you know, the “phase” everyone tells you kids go through.

So, it came as a complete and utter shock when my son came home from a hockey game one night, flung himself into my arms, sobbing he no longer wanted to live.

Wait. That’s not all of it.

After contacting the principal, his teachers, and getting him weeks of therapy, I thought everything was just fine.  So, it came as another complete and utter shock when I arrived home one Saturday morning after running errands to find an extremely angry older brother banging on my front door, claiming that my son, the same boy bullied in sixth grade, was now the one making fun of his brother in seventh grade.

Holy heart-stopping hell.

Once I got Mr. Testosterone to convince his mother to step out of her idling mini-van, I got the true story.  Her little boy came up to my stubble-faced, five-foot-nine-inch-tall-seventh grader’s stomach. Every time my son did as little as fist-bump this boy, he felt intimidated. My son insists he never tormented him. However, after listening to his mother and brother detail every incident where the boy came home shivering, my son was forced to admit he could understand the boy’s perception.

This doesn’t excuse college-aged students pulling a hidden camera stunt, but it makes you wonder… was death really their intent? In my heart, I have to believe it wasn’t…  they were just having a laugh. I also wonder just how many kids are engaging in bullying or standing by when bullying occurs without knowing how damaging, how permanent, the results?  That’s where we come in. As parents, we have to do a better job of teaching and helping our kids navigate a shifting virtual landscape, where so much of today’s bullying is taking place. We must be ever vigilant, no matter how stressed or exhausted we may be. We must stress and stress again how hurtful it is to laugh at someone, no matter how old we are.

I am first-hand proof of how easy it is to assume we’ve done a good enough job. I’m lucky; my son is now a college freshman but neither of us has forgotten how narrowly we escaped a headline-making tragedy.

Good enough isn’t that good at all.



11 responses to “An epidemic of bullying”

  1. Linda G. says:

    Excellent post, Patty. You’ve pointed out how easy it is to miss the signs that a child not only is being bullied, but might even be a bully (or headed in that direction).

    It’s tough to keep those lines of communication open once the kiddos hit puberty, but so important to try. Thank goodness your son finally came to you–thank goodness he felt comfortable enough to do that. You’re a good mom. :)

    • Patty says:

      Thanks, Linda… you repeated my point: no matter how much you think you’ve done, it’s probably not enough and you always have to stay involved in their lives.

  2. You’ve pointed out how important it is for parents to be involved in their kids’ lives. That doesn’t mean become a helicopter, but be aware of the signs that something’s happening.

    I was fortunate. When my son was in middle school he wound up getting with a suspension for fighting. When I dug into the incident with him, he was being picked on by a kid and kept from defending himself until he could take it no more and fought back. During this particular incident, he was not the instigator, so I gave him options to handle it, as there was enough damage to take him to the doctor (but not enough to hospitalize). He took the option to going to court which taught him and the other kid a bit about the consequences of violence. Long story short, the kid had a history of violence and was put on a year probation with the judge dictating strict terms of attendance and scholarship (which I thought was a great touch). We got reimbursed for our out of pocket expenses and both children got a first-hand look at how the legal system could work.

    My rambling point is that bullying has to be handled when kids are young to prevent the problem in adults.

    • Patty says:

      Wow! Curious… what was the school’s stance, other than your son’s suspension? Our situation ended similarly, with my son finally taking a swipe at the ringleader. But because I’d already notified his teachers and principal that a problem existed, they apologized to me that it had reached this point.

      Your son is brave for going to court and I think you handled it wonderfully, too.

      • The system’s policy is one of non-tolerance. The school administrators were sympathetic but had to go by the rules. They did, however, help by providing the information we needed to prosecute.

        While it’s still very flawed, I do believe in the justice system and felt I needed to pass that on to my sons (youngest wound up coming with us).

        Of course, my son was also admonished to always protect himself but that I’d kill him if I ever heard he was an instigator. :D

        • Santiago says:

          Stanley, your son did the RIGHT thing to defend hieslmf. Give him a high five for me!!! These schools that are adopting the no bullying policies are rediculous! At the school my son goes to you have to let someone hit you TWICE before you are legitimately eligible to hit back.. Last year my son (16ys old) was in an altercation where an older student saw him in the hallway, got up and walked out of the classroom he was in- in the middle of the class and jumped on my sons back while punching him in the front of his head and face! My son had no clue the older student wanted to beat him up. As a matter of fact they used to be friends. I got a phone call at work telling me that my son was in an altercation, the school did not know what brought this on, I needed to go pick him up because they thought he had broken his hand fighting back. I got there and his face was cut, swollen, bruised and his hand was surely broken. So to the ER we went and then to the orthopedic surgeon to cast his broken bones in his hand. Later that evening I spoke with the disciplinarian and he told me that he wasn’t sure what type of punishment my son would be getting although the other student admitted that he did leave his class to start a fight with my son. There was definite intention there. Needless to say after I spoke my peace-swearing included he did not receive punishment. He was too merely defending hieslmf

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  5. abby mumford says:

    patty, this is a great post. like linda said, it’s easy to miss the signs that one is being bullied or headed down the path of a bully.

    but even more to that point, the perception of being bullied is so subjective. what one kid thought of as a harmless fist bump, another kid took it as a fist of fear. communication is so important here. between the kids. the school. the parents. the kids and their parents.

    • Patty says:

      Thank you, Abby. I agree, communication is key. It is, sadly, so easy (too easy) to allow the daily grind to take away our focus.