Bullying back: right or wrong?

No one, absolutely NO ONE, supports bullying, right?

Thankfully, a good trend in schools – now necessary for safety for children and teachers – is to implement anti-bullying and tolerance curriculum. These curriculum attempt to give kids resources in tough situations that almost always include alerting an adult as part of their protocol. When I was a kid, this was called “tattle tailing”. If Julie witnesses Rob harming Steve and tells an adult, Julie will likely be harassed later for being a “tattle tail”. There is a considerable amount of cultural reinforcement for keeping silent when others are being harmed.

Consider what most adults do in situations of injustice between adults. Let’s say that you are in the check-out line at Kmart. An adult begins arguing with someone they are shopping with and it gets hyped into spewing words like fireworks. What do you do?

I mostly observe and try to remove myself from the situation. I want to respect each person’s relationships and their efforts to resolve their conflicts. It doesn’t really feel like my place to intervene. Remaining silent (though worried or judgmental) is the cultural norm at least in conflict between two adults. When a child is involved, we still defer to the adult, even if we find ourselves wanting to grab the child and run out the door with them. (I am sure I am not the only one who has been in that same Kmart store praying that someone from CPS just happened to be available to lay handcuffs on some parent.) I feel so anxious when a child is mistreated.

Does that make me an anti-bullying advocate? It certainly is belief and passion, perhaps even intent. But there is a limited amount of effectiveness to grabbing my solar plexis and praying. True, I  worry about repercussions at home to a child or woman if I were to intervene, but silence makes us complicit nonetheless.

In principal, we are against bullying – and violence. We don’t want anyone beating someone up. It’s wrong! “Use your words,” we tell our children when they are escalating into the Tasmanian devil.

My question is: Is there a time when the one being bullied should “bite back?”

I know parents who have this approach. “Let them know they can’t bully you” or “Let them work it out on the playground“.

I recall one eye-opening conversation when my kids were preschool age. A mom admitted that she “bit back” the boy who bit her daughter. It was the third incident and she was DONE with this behavior. So, in an intentionally calm way, she reached over, grabbed his arm and bit him back. Not enough to break the skin, but it hurt enough to make the point.  I was aghast, but naturally kept silent because this is exactly what I am conditioned to do.

What about “bullying back”? If you took away the power differential in my previous story, is it ever a good thing to bully back? We certainly know it is instinctual. As in the instinct to run the other direction. In the moment it may feel more powerful to give into our rage and strike back at someone who is abusive, but non-violence is far more powerful. It demands more self control, more mental acuity, more compassion from us. And ultimately, aren’t those the values we want to exercise?

The physical nature of some boys and girls can be a bit overwhelming. Teaching them to control their bodies cannot remain solely in the realm of adult intervention in crisis. And … fighting back has some logic to it. For, what is lost when someone is bullied? Their sense of safety and personal power. How do you resolve it? Give them some of their own medicine. At least some would say.

Truthfully, in the short run – it can feel and look like an effective tool.

We Americans are hard-pressed to let go of the myth of redemptive violence that pervades our culture. From movies to television to every form of “gaming” – we hardly blink at someone being killed on the screen. And we are manipulated to feel like they deserve it.  This is a primary reason I refuse to watch violence. I don’t like being seduced into wanting the “bad guy” killed – nor do I want to throw party at their death. (See my post after Osama Bin Laden’s death http://wp.me/p1p3zn-dL )

Some think that reality and “screen killing” are categorically different. And that we are better at differentiating between reality and “screen killing”.

I wish that were true. Studies conducted by the Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association draws a connection between exposure to violence as a young person and that child’s own use of violence as an adult. http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/youthviolence/chapter4/appendix4bsec2.html. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2003/03/media-violence.aspx

This conversation is a microcosm of what happens on a national and global level.

I know it sounds crazy to some of you, but there must be a connection between how we teach our children to respond to and treat bullies and what our behavior is as a society.

Ultimately, these behaviors reflect our values which affect our values.

Do you know what I mean?

Bullying back? I am thinking no.

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One Response to Bullying back: right or wrong?

  1. Hi Shannon,
    Powerful, thoughtful post. I have three grown children and I can’t tell you how I agonized over this very thing. Eventually, I landed at telling my kids NOT to stand there and let someone pummel them, to defend themselves if this ever came up, but I also explained to them why I thought bullying happened and that understanding the ‘why’ was the most important thing to do. I believe they do understand and would likely speak up as adults if they saw something hurtful happening.
    One time when my children were little–and I hate telling anyone this because I did nothing–we were at Penney’s when a man walked by carrying his son in front of himself by the boy’s throat. The boy’s face was very red; his father was choking him, saying, “How many times do I have to tell you….” I think of that boy once in a while and wonder if anyone ever helped him. After that, I speak up now, though two families I’ve reported to social services packed up and moved during the night shortly afterwards. I find this sad and discouraging (though I also believe we choose our lives before we are born for specific reasons.)
    The problem of violence is horrendous and a shift in who we are needs to occur. Our whole society needs to include everyone–especially those who have no adult to care for them or who are being abused. Thanks for your thought-provoking post.

    Pam B

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