I was driving home today (with a migraine), and I listened to a story on NPR about the long-lasting psychological effects of bullying. I had to think back to my own youth and wonder what context it played in my life today. I had a pretty bad home life, and I was bullied and picked on relentlessly throughout elementary, middle and part of high school. I was a very quiet and mild mannered child. It is very conscientious of others. I rarely stood up for myself, but would stand up for others. I was raised early on as being a Baptist and was taught to always turn the other cheek. When I complained about bullies at school, I was told just to ignore them and that they would eventually leave me alone. Perhaps that strategy works for some, but it certainly did not in my case. I was tall, lanky and very thin in school. I wore glasses, and overall was considered to be geeky. That was before being geeky was acceptable. I had very little interaction with other children in my early years. I was homeschooled until the second grade. I was held back in the fourth grade because I hadn’t been mature enough according to the teacher at that time, whether that was true or not I don’t know. Given my home environment mixed with being picked on constantly in school, life was very miserable pretty much all day every day. The story talked about how being bullied in school affected people even a decade after having left school. There were also people that they talked about who weren’t just bullied, but both bullied and were bullied in school. That got me to thinking about how I handled things. In middle school I remember getting into fights a lot by eighth grade. Again, I was a quiet, meek and mild mannered child. Everyone has their breaking point. Around the beginning of 8th grade, I had reached mine. I remember only starting about two fights, at least where I threw the first punch. The rest of the time, either I was attacked outright, or it took a moment where I was being picked on, in talked back at the bully and insulted them or said anything that was necessary to get them to at least throw the first punch. You didn’t get in as much trouble if you didn’t start the fight. By 10th grade I was still tall and skinny and fairly geeky, but I could scrap. There was nothing I liked more than to have some arrogant jock who loved picking on everybody come at me and for me to have a chance to humble them and their attitude.
Based on what the psychiatrist who authored the study, those who were both bullied and were bullies themselves had a tremendous amount of psychological problems spanning at least a decade after having left school. The two common things that they mentioned or panic disorders and suicidal thoughts. I do remember having many suicidal thoughts and having come close many times while in school. While in school, the suicidal ideation was result mostly of the home environment and had little to do with the school environment. For many children though, I can see where school alone would be more than enough to drive one to that point. I know for me, I did have a lot of problems after having left school and home. I did have problems with panic attacks, and I certainly thought a lot about suicide in relation to my childhood and adolescence. It’s odd, because when I write about this I feel nothing, but I know at the time I felt so much that it was hard to contain.
There seems to be a push to try to shelter children from many of the harsh realities that exist in adult life. I don’t know if the theory is that if we raise children in an emotionally sterile environment that this will create complete harmony in adult life, but I’m left wondering if this will do more damage than good in the long run. I’m not saying children should be bullied relentlessly. I do think something needs to be done about that. However, anyone who is entered the workforce finds out right away that often the most aggressive or even the prettiest candidate for a position will likely get it before the most qualified or well-suited for the position. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe have worked in the wrong fields, but this has been my observation. I think the children should get a fair amount of adversity while growing up so they can at least get a chance to develop some of the skills that will be very necessary to simply get through adult life. I think by addressing every small emotionally uncomfortable event in a child’s life and treating it like it is something much larger than it is, we run the risk of raising a generation of hypersensitive children. There also seems to be a culture of not wanting to discipline children at all and trying to reason with them as if they are small adults. This flies in the face of what we know about the emotional and psychological development in children. There seems to be an utter lack of discipline with children in American society today. Every time I go to the store, I can expect to see at least 2 to 3 children in complete meltdown mode over having not gotten their way over something so simple is not getting something they want, or simply wanting attention. I don’t find that to be very odd, so much as I find it appalling that the parents either do nothing, or attempts to reason with a three or four-year-old is if they are in adult. I know when I was that age if I threw a tantrum in a store like that, it would either be addressed immediately or even worse when we get back to the car. Regardless, I knew better. So did the rest of the kids of my generation. There’s no fear anymore. I don’t think it’s realistic to believe that raising a child with nothing but positive reinforcement is a sane or logical idea. I was abused. There is a line between discipline and abuse. There were many times where I earned that smack on my butt and it wasn’t abuse. It may have taken more than once, but I did learn to not keep doing the same thing.
I honestly believe that the solution to bullying starts at home with the parents, but they have to be allowed to actually discipline their children. Respect is not only earned, it is learned. If a child is basically told that they are never wrong, and that there is essentially no punishment, respect will never be learned or earned in relation to their parents. Teachers have even more restrictions on offering any sort of discipline to children. It’s a nice notion that bullies can be reasoned with like any other reasonable person. In some cases, that may be true. As we have learned as adults though, some people may be intelligent enough to reason with, but they will simply choose not to. Not everybody wants to do the right thing. Not everybody is self-conscious. Not every person lays awake wondering if they could have been better at some point in their life. Some people just want what they want and don’t care about anyone else but themselves. I think that a disturbed individual who is acting out in an aggressive manner who is actually struggling internally with feelings that they simply don’t know how to process deserves compassion and the time necessary to work through those issues. I don’t think every bully is the person I just described. Sometimes an asshole is just an asshole and should be treated as such. In short, sometimes a bully just needs to be put in their place by anyone capable of doing so that happens to be around.