When I saw that the Daily Beast had published an article about how parents intervening in bullying situations may not always be for the best, my heart leaped with joy. “Finally,” I thought, “We’re going to have a grown-up discussion about the brutal realities of bullying instead of just a bunch of lip-smacking from adults claiming they always oppose it.” Sadly, it was not to be. The article is just scolding parents not to overreact for fear that their kids won’t be tough enough if their parents fight their battles for them. There was no acknowledgment of the possibility that parental interference could backfire and make the bullying worse.
Bullying, like bigotry, is one of those things that everyone swears up and down they oppose, but reality tells a different story. Both ideas of how to handle conflict and bullying in school offered in this story rest on the incorrect assumption that school authorities disapprove of bullying in practice. If the parent calls, the assumption is that the school will take effective anti-bullying measures against the perpetrator. If the parent leaves it up to the child to stand up for herself, the assumption is that the school will allow this standing up to happen. In my experience, and in the stories I’ve heard from others who were bullied, this simply isn’t true. Often, if a bully is tattled on, the school will nominally punish the bully but allow the bully to use this as an excuse to blame the victim for the punishment and double down in retaliation. And, if a bullied student stands up to the bully, often the person defending herself will be the one punished while the bully is let off with equal or lesser punishment, even though the bully started it. Zero tolerance policies often make this worse, by giving school authorities an excuse to take it out on the kid who defended herself, by citing their supposed requirement not to look at context.
The ugly truth is that kids get bullied because they’re not conforming to some social standard the bullies hold, and often the adults in charge agree with the bullies on the social standard, which makes them side all too often with bullies against the bullied. This is the most under-discussed aspect of the problem, by far. The only people who seem to be talking about how bullying is a direct result of larger social messages about conformity are a handful of people talking about homophobic bullying, and how it reflects larger social messages about queerness that the bullies are absorbing and acting out. And even in this case, most of the discussion around things like the It Gets Better Project are mealy-mouthed condemnations of bullying without looking at root causes. Until the adults in charge vigorously disagree with the bullies on subjects such as, “Kids who are unathletic are second class,” or, “Kids who don’t conform to rigid gender roles are threatening,” there isn’t going to be much we can do about bullying.
Photograph of an anti-bullying pamphlet by Wikimedia Commons.