Her name was Lori and she spelled it just like me. She joined my class when I was in fourth grade and right away she was the target of bullying. At a time when most of us were years away from puberty, her young face was already covered with blotchy patches of cystic acne. “Pizza Face” and “Pimple Puss” were the names quickly thrown at her and she fought back by yelling and snarling when people approached her…which only made things much worse.
I wish I could say that I was the one who rose above and did the right thing. I wish I’d been brave enough to stick up for her and make her my friend. But I didn’t. I always perceived myself as being on fragile ground with the “cool” kids and in a misguided attempt to garner favour from the popular crowd – I’m ashamed to admit that I joined in on the taunting on more than one occasion.
She left the school before the year was out and I never saw her again but I’ve often wondered what became of Lori. And I always feel a pang of guilt when I think about her and wish I could turn back the clock and apologize for my behaviour.
I don’t think a single day goes by without another story about the epidemic of bullying grabbing my attention. It’s all over the news, it runs rampant on social media, it’s a big part of the school curriculum, it’s the subject of endless television shows and it’s always a hot topic of conversation amongst my friends. But what strikes me the most about this issue is the unwavering and unrelenting focus on the “victims” of bullying. It seems like every single celebrity and every single child has been the target of bullying at some time or another.
Now don’t get me wrong – I believe victims of bullying deserve our utmost compassion and understanding. We need to work together to find a solution so that everyone can feel safe and protected. But for me the real question is: why doesn’t all of the education and media attention surrounding this epidemic seem to be doing a darn bit of good?
Whenever I hear another tragic story about bullying I can’t help but wonder – was I part of a group of bullies way back in grade 4 with my behaviour towards Lori? And if so – can I learn anything from my 10-year-old self that could help me better understand the crisis of bullying we are facing today?
Although I was never formally punished for what happened- I know from my kids that the protocol for these actions at school today is immediate and often public discipline in the form of forced apologies, suspensions, expulsions and the additional fallout of what happens when parents are informed (scoldings, punishments, grounding, etc). But do any of these “solutions” truly work to reform the behaviour or could they actually be making things worse?
I can tell you this from looking back to my elementary school years: although I came from a loving home and was generally a good kid, I was also plagued by feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem and a longing to fit in. When I joined in on the taunting of a fellow student, it wasn’t out of a need to be “bad” or deliberately cruel- I just wanted to be part of a group. I desperately wanted to have friends and I longed for acceptance and a sense of belonging. And any of those punishments listed above would only have added to my feelings of being unworthy and unloveable.
The bullying is the child’s scream for help, not for punishment, and certainly not for shaming.
So what if in order to heal this epidemic we need do something completely different? Instead of taking the traditional route of demonizing the bully and rescuing the victim – instead of buying into the “good vs evil” mindset that seems to form the bedrock of our society- we pause and take a closer look at the underlying issues. What if instead of rushing to badmouth and punish the bully – we approached them with an attitude of curiosity, compassion and a maybe even a hug?
I know this sounds radical and weird but this issue is in crisis mode and what we are doing simply isn’t working. We need a revolution. And it us up to as friends, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, coaches and educators to work together to effect positive change.
So – what the heck can we do? Well there are 2 incredible woman who are willing to lead us in taking a revolutionary approach to bullying. Dr. Shefali Tsabary (author of “The Conscious Parent”) and filmmaker Amy S Weber (writer/director “A Girl Like Her“) have joined forces to challenge society to set aside long-held beliefs about bullying and to approach the issue from an entirely different perspective. If you can spare the time I highly encourage you to watch the video clip at the link below (it runs about 30 minutes). These remarkable women offer up paradigm-shifting advice that is guaranteed to change the way you think about bullies and their victims:
At the heart of their message are a few suggestions:
1. Connect – I am certainly guilty of taking on too much and running in a thousand different directions at once. Sometimes I get so caught up in keeping a bunch of balls in the air that I forget to take the time to deeply connect with my children. All of us want to feel seen, heard and understood and unconditionally loved. No child that acts like a bully is feeling great about themselves and we have to work extra hard to be sure our children really feel connected to us in meaningful ways.
2. Drop The Ego & Let Kids Be Themselves – not long ago I signed my daughter up for a recording session with me at a local studio. I have always secretly wanted to be Celine Dion and I just assumed that my daughter would want to join in on the fun. It wasn’t until we were in the car on the way to the session that she confessed “Mom – just so that you know – I really don’t want to do this. I hate singing. Just because you like it doesn’t mean that I will too!” Ouch. So often we adults impose our own ideas onto our children. We just assume that they will want to do all of the things we want them to do, avoid the mistakes we made and follow the carefully laid plans that we have all mapped out for them. But our children have their own lives to live and we need to give them the freedom to be themselves and uncover their own special path. When they feel accepted and loved for who they truly are they won’t feel the need to act out against others.
3. Model empathetic behaviour – I was recently chatting to my son about one of his friends and suggested that we have his whole family over for dinner one night. “But mom” he said “didn’t I overhear you tell dad that his mom was kind of different?” Oh boy. We have to be so careful to model the type of behaviour we want our children to emulate. Are you kind and understanding with the people in your own life? Do you reserve judgment or do you jump in and comment on the behaviour of others? When your child tells you about an incident at school are you quick to judge another parent or child or can you wait, listen and then comment with something neutral or empathetic? Instead of “Well, it’s no surprise that Suzy would do something like that. Her parents aren’t the nicest people either.” what about “Wow – sounds like Suzy was having a rough day. Do you think she’s ok?”
So who is a bully? Well maybe way back in 1980, one of them was me. And I can tell you that although I deeply regret some of the choices I made back then, I learned a very valuable lesson: life isn’t always good vs evil and black vs white. The picture society paints of a big, tough, wicked bully isn’t only false – it totally misses the point. Because in reality, a bully can simply be a shy insecure innocent-looking little girl ….and maybe she just needs a hug.
The only way to save a victim is to heal a bully.