Monday, October 11, 2010

The Origins of Bullying

The parenting topic du jour lately seems to the the topic of bullying.  Last week's tragic accounts of the suicides of 3 teenagers after being outed as homosexuals by bullies has put the topic of bullying in the forefront of a lot of people's  minds and rightly so.  I read an article in the NY Times yesterday which asserts that bullying is starting younger and younger.  To read the article click here.

While reading this article, which does not assert that bullying is a new phenomenon but it does leave the impression that bullying has evolved now into younger and younger kids being the victims of bullies and explores some of the reasons for that.  All the reasons seem true, but unfortunately I know from personal experience that bullying younger kids is not new.  How do I know that?  Because I was bullied.

As a kid, I must say that I really didn't know what it meant to be a friend to another child.  I never really learned that and my parents never taught me.  A lot of parents didn't talk to their children about things like this in the 1970's. Socialization, like a lot of things in those times, was just supposed to occur naturally.  On top of my lack of social skills, I was also a bed wetter, which  to say the least did nothing to build my confidence. I lived in fear that other kids would find out and on the rare occasions I was asked to sleep over at another kid's house, I never got any sleep, too afraid to let myself relax for fear that I would wet the bed and not only rock my precarious friendship, but give the kids more ammunition. Imagine a six year old kid being up at 3AM, dying of thirst (because of course I didn't drink anything since the afternoon in fear of what that might bring at night), just looking at the ceiling and and trying not to be afraid of the creaks and noises of a strange house,  fighting back tears.  That was me all over.  I hated sleepovers.  I wanted desperately to be asked, but when it was time to go to bed all my fears went into overdrive.  Like all kids, I wanted to belong, to have friends.  My social ineptitude and all the other stuff made me completely desperate to have and hang onto a friend, I was clingy and whiny and willing to do nearly anything to stay in someone's good stead.  My social ineptitude coupled with my desperation was not a good formula for fitting in.    I was and was labeled as a crybaby, a misfit and therefore was an easy target.  

I was the kid who stood alone at the bus stop while the other kids taunted and teased me and would not let me stand near them and who forced me to get on the bus last and face the rejection of the other kids who didn't want me to sit with them.  In winter I was pelted with snowballs and in the summer my hair was pulled or my halter top untied on the school bus while suffering the laughter of all the other kids when my bare chest was exposed. Once I was in school, things were better as there were other kids and plus with adults around I was more protected.  I used to get off the school bus at the end of the day and try at first to walk home calmly under the radar, because I knew if I ran, they would run after me and taunt me or hurt me and I would end up walking in the house crying which would probe questions either from my mom or my brothers, none of which I wanted to answer.  What started as a walk often turned into running to escape their taunting or rock throwing when I was sure I was close enough to my driveway to run fast and escape them because I knew they wouldn't dare run into my driveway and up the stairs to the door and risk running into my mother.  The hardest part was that some of these same kids who followed along with the ring leaders did call me up for play dates.  So after school and on weekends I did go over to other girls' houses in the neighborhood and they came to our house, but like clockwork, the next school day they would be huddled over with the rest of the kids, and maybe while not directly participating in my daily humiliation, they were silent conspirators.  The sum of all this was that I was terribly confused, not understanding why in private some kids were willing to befriend me but yet were not willing to be my friends in front of the bullies.  Granted, the bullies in the neighborhood I grew up in were older boys and the other girls in my neighborhood were surely too afraid to stand up for me for fear that they could be next.  As I got older things did get better, we moved when I was 9 to Miami and at least to my way of thinking I was able to make a fresh start.

When my parents divorced when I was 13, we moved back to Pennsylvania and I ended up at another new school where I attended high school.  While I easily made friends there and was lucky enough to find a really sweet group of girlfriends who lived in my neighborhood, I still had to put up with taunting.  In particular there was one boy in my neighborhood, he was a star athlete, from a good family and for some reason unknown to me, this boy didn't like me on sight.  I knew I never did anything to deserve his taunting because I didn't know him and it started the first day of school.  He taunted me on the school bus and in the winter throw snowballs at me and in the summer, throw rocks.  The only difference was that my friends stood by me and didn't leave me alone and instead of me being the outcast, he was, at least at the bus stop.  I even suspect that he was the one who poured gasoline on our yard, spelling sexual expletives out on the grass for the whole neighborhood to see when they drove by.  I learned what giving h**d was because it was spelled out on the grass and I had to ask my dad what it meant.  Talk about your embarrassing moments.

On Facebook I have been having a lot of comment threads with friends about the causes of bullying and the consensus I see  is the idea that bullying comes from ignorance.  Yes, there is ignorance involved in bullying but I think it is something more than that.  Low self esteem?  Sure, but I think the primary cause of bullying is bullying.  A child is bullied by someone and they feel the need to bully someone else.

As much as I hated being bullied, I was a bully too at times, particularly in elementary school.  There was one kid who, if it was possible, was perceived by me as being a weaker link than me and instead of me sympathizing with him I teased and taunted him too.  I was grateful that 20-some odd years later by chance, in Israel, I ran into this boy, who was now a man,  and had the opportunity to apologize for what I did to him.

This experience of meeting up with a kid that I had bullied got me thinking about why I had felt the need to bully this kid after I had been brutalized so horribly.  Had they been bullied by someone too?  Then I remembered that one of the kids who was the leader of the pack of the kids who brutalized me in elementary school was my next door neighbor.  He was a year older than me in school and his younger sister (who was a year behind me in school) was one of my 'secret friends'.  I spent a lot of time over at their house.  Their mother who I thought was very sweet because she hugged us all the time, spent most of her time sleeping, even in the middle of the afternoon which seemed strange to me.  Most of the time she didn't get up until dinnertime and in her beautiful, flowing nightgowns she would make dinner for her kids and sit and cuddle with them.  She always drank ice water out of these little round glasses with gold around the rim.  They were so delicate and beautiful, like she was to me at the time, and I just loved the way the ice clinked against the glass.  She always drank her water so fast I used to wonder why she didn't take a bigger glass for her ice water.  Still she was a very sweet, kind, delicate woman and much more gentle than my own mother.  She liked rock music and we used to listen to Elvis Presley with her and sometimes she would dance with us or sing into her hairbrush and just be silly with us.

Their father, who was not home very often,  because as I learned from my mother when she and my father talked about how they didn't want me spending time over there, spent most of his days at the race track. I used to beg my mother to let me go over there and she felt sorry for me, although she didn't know the extent of what I had to put up with every day, she knew I didn't have a lot of friends, therefore more often than not she capitulated and let me go over there.  She would ask me if the dad was home, and I always said no, because she would not let me go over there if he was home.  It was good he wasn't at home very often because his family was definitely on edge whenever he was around.  There was no singing or dancing when he was there, that's for sure.  I also didn't like being there when he was at home and my mother always told me I had to come right home if he was there.  But I didn't always listen and sometimes stayed hoping that he would go out again, as he did sometimes, then we could return to listening to records, dancing and having fun.  Their dad always wore three piece suits, but his shirt would be untucked, his hair a mess and his tie half undone.  My parents had anger issues, but nothing like this guy. He was never without a drink or a beer in his hand and on more than one occasion I saw him hit his wife and once he beat his son with a belt buckle when I was in the house.  I didn't see him do it because my friend and I were told by the mother to stay in the basement and play until it was all over.  When it was over the boy came downstairs to us and showed us the red mark the buckle made.  Of course at 8 years old when this boy pulled down my top on the bus or pushed me off my bicycle I wasn't thinking of the beatings he had to endure from his own father or from my brother Gary, who was 15 and who punched this kid and gave him a fat  lip for pulling my top down and for making me cry a thousand other times.

What I understand as an adult but didn't get as a child was that this kid bullied me because he was abused by his dad. I bullied a boy because I was bullied.   I wonder what the other kids who bullied me had to endure?

I wish I would have told my mom or dad about what I witnessed in the house next door.  I saw a lot of terrible things and that was what I saw, I can only imagine what went on when it was only their family at home.  I have felt bad that I never told anyone about what I saw there, at times I thought maybe I could have helped that boy and his mother to stop being beaten.  The truth is, in the 1970's it would have been my word against the father's and probably nothing would have happened.  Beating your kid with a strap was much more commonplace in the 70's and although I never experienced that type of brutality from my own parents, I was hit on occasion and hitting just seemed like a natural extension of parenting.  Still, knowing what I know now and after years of analysis I do know that part of me was afraid that if I told, I would be seen as a rat, even more ostracized, terrorized and I was just too scared. 

I hope that whereever my former next door neighbor and his sister are that they are okay and more importantly, if they have kids, they are okay.

Which brings me to another thought.  Not only do we need to teach our kids that bullying is wrong under any circumstances, but we have to give our kids the confidence to stand up and speak out when they witness another kid get bullied. 

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