I have stories. True stories.
Seven girls cherry-pick an eighth and assail her with a torrent of texts prominently featuring the b-word.
Sophomore boys taunt a classmate with a clever little jingle about his dental issues.
A fifth-grader hijacks a slumber party, taking half the guests—and all the cake—into another room, deserting the birthday girl.
An entire third grade channels a boy’s lisp into a nickname that echoes into his adulthood.
Cheerleaders criticize the awkward girl on the squad so relentlessly her mother shows up at practice, calling out their cruelty, questioning their Christianity, crying herself through it all.
I sympathize with that mother—watching helplessly as her daughter shrinks before her very eyes, wondering whether she really is stupid and ugly.
I have no easy answers for bullying.
It’d be great if kids monitored themselves, rallying around the victims and standing up to the aggressors. But this doesn’t happen often enough. In fact, that first example I offered? It started with just four girls cherry-picking one. Then three others, who purported to be friends of the victim, got scared, turned tail, and joined the bullies, making it seven against one.
So what do we offer our kids as solutions to bullying?
- Praying? Of course.
- Turning the other cheek? Unfortunately, it usually invites more abuse. Some might even say it enables the sin.
- Reasoning with the bully? Let’s just say they’re not renowned for their conciliatory spirits.
- How about reasoning with the parents? I’m afraid that even the most well-intentioned parental tête-à-tête may backfire. Parents of bullies may deny the behavior, out of embarrassment if nothing else. They may hint that, surely, there are two sides to the story. They may agree to talk to their children while secretly being relieved that in the inevitable power struggles of childhood, their darlings are on the top, not the bottom.
- How about fighting back? A Christian psychologist told a boy to punch his bully in self-defense, and—voila!—the sinful behavior stopped. Is that the answer? This is difficult. We all know there’s a Christian ethos that elevates victimization—as if, because our Savior gave his life for us, we should let anyone hurt us in any way they want. But I’m wondering whether the Fifth Commandment says otherwise. Its protection of human life and well-being includes our own, doesn’t it? If I were mugged in an alley, I’d surely fight tooth and nail to defend myself. So why would I tell my child that if someone is hurting them, they should just take it? On the other hand, you do hear stories of kind old ladies loving on the thugs trying to steal their purses, and that kindness stops the thugs in their tracks and changes their lives. I guess I’m saying I don’t know.
- Finally, some just throw in the towel from the get-go: “Kids will be kids. Sensitive kids just have to toughen up.” Sadly, there’s truth there. We can’t make people behave. We can only decide how to respond.
This is where we parents come in.
If our kids are being mistreated, we can shore up their battered psyches: “God made you amazing! Those boys cannot tell you what to do. Those girls cannot decide who you will be. Let’s pray—that the bully will stop, yes, but that no matter what happens, you’ll find ways to rise above this. And while we’re at it, let’s pray for the bully too.”
We can also discuss what drives the bad behavior: “Bullies don’t know they’re bullies. They don’t rub their hands together each morning, planning the day’s nastiness. They’re scared—scared they won’t get the acceptance and applause they feel they deserve. So they fight for it—with fists, with words, with manipulation so subtle even we adults sometimes can’t see it.”
And more: “That bully can’t keep up with you on the court or in the classroom, so she has to reclaim her power position by tormenting you.” Or “That bully’s father has a short temper, so he’s just paying it forward.”
By exploring bullies’ motivation, we cultivate our kids’ empathetic imaginations—a quality bullies lack, incidentally. And it’s possible that this will help our kids find a chink in the bully’s armor—a sliver of vulnerability, a speck of human decency, maybe even a way to the tormenter’s tormented heart.
There’s also a flip side: “Is my kid a bully?”
This one takes some humility and maturity to consider.
There are signs. Are they obsessed with popularity? Quick to mock and sneer? Belligerent or physically aggressive? Frustrated when they don’t get their way? Pouty when they don’t get attention? Do they blame others—teachers, coaches, classmates—for their lack of success? Do they roll their eyes at authority figures?
Have they never mentioned any bullying? Then maybe they’re the bully.
If we’re inadvertently raising little tyrants, we need to make some changes, don’t we? Otherwise they become grown-up tyrants—browbeating their spouses, frightening their children, manipulating their colleagues.
How do we do that? We start by taking away the little bullies’ insecurities. We help them feel safe and loved and valuable. Borrowing from Maslow a bit, I’d suggest . . .
- We make sure we’re dependable parents. We provide hot food, clean jeans, on-time rides to practice and lessons, and general tranquility at home. We keep them safe.
- We show we love them—just as they are. We have time for them. We listen to their stories. We allow them to ask questions and to disagree with us. We take them seriously as human beings. They belong in this family, and they always will.
- We remind them they’re loved by someone even larger. Their heavenly Father formed them in the womb. Jesus demonstrated his deep love by shedding his blood and dying for them. He understands their pain, their weakness, their strengths better than they do themselves. They’re very special in his eyes, and—this is important—so is everyone else.
- We nurture their empathetic imaginations by calling attention to others’ needs: “Did you notice Owen sitting by himself again?” “What would it feel like to always be picked last, like Amber is?” And going in another direction: “Seems like Emma’s good at everything—do you think her life is easy in every respect?” “Nick is always cracking jokes—why is that?” We can nudge our kids out of their egocentricity and open their eyes to see the hearts of their fellow human beings.
- We teach them common courtesy. Unless everyone is invited to the party, handing out invitations at school is unacceptable. Though they’ll have special friends, being unkind to anyone is unacceptable. Social media is great, but being nasty online is unacceptable.
- We supervise them without apology. This is our job. We won’t tolerate criticizing, marginalizing, or hurting others—including their siblings. We check their texts, their Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Whisper accounts. It’s not an invasion of privacy—it’s parenting. When they sin, we dole out consequences. And as their maturity increases, our supervision decreases.
- We teach them resilience. When things don’t go their way, when they fail, we remind them they can’t blame others. They’re not victims. They’re responsible for their own lives. They can dust themselves off, make different choices, harness the gifts God gave them, and try again.
- Maybe most of all, we model kindness—the kind of kindness Jesus showed to us. Our kids need to see us not being bullies—not mocking or criticizing people, not marginalizing those who aren’t as together as we think we are, not losing our tempers at the drop of a hat, not manipulating people to gain sympathy or power.
Kids will be kids? I’d add, “Parents need to be parents.”
God help us be wise ones, whether our kids are the victims of bullies or the bullies themselves.