Youth Culture Window
"Bullying" is the buzz of 2010. Articles, studies, news reports, anti-bullying banners…I can’t go a week without hearing someone talking about it, someone who hasn’t been bullied.
Something happens to kids when they are repeatedly mocked and pushed around publicly. It changes them. It happened to my dad and it happened to me. But the hardest by far was to see it happen to my son, Alec.
When Alec was in the 5th grade, he changed in a period of six weeks. Our family had just moved across town and enrolled the kids into a new school. The girls adjusted fine, but Alec immediately became a target of harassment. My wife and I watched a sweet, innocent, gregarious boy slowly chiseled down to a quiet, sad little kid. Bitterness began to emerge. His posture literally changed. Previously he walked with confidence and a little bounce to his step. Six weeks later, his shoulders drooped and his head hung low, almost scared to look around.
It’s sad to see what bullying does to a kid. My dad and I both recognized it in Alec when we first saw it. We knew it all too well. He was emotionally broken.
My dad is 5’4” as an adult. So as you can imagine, as a kid he was small—plus he was shy and a little on the pudgy side. It doesn’t take too many times hearing the words fat or midget thrown at you to develop a complex about your weight and size.
Kids don’t even need physical defects to be bullied, but if you have a major physical flaw, you’re a prime target. My buck teeth provided plenty of ammo for everyone. I shudder even typing those words—buck teeth. It seemed as though there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t hear them.
My baby teeth were fine. But when my permanent teeth came in… Wow! Rather than even describing it, I’ll just include a picture. (Yeah, those babies are real!)
I heard it every day.
“Hey, Bugs Bunny!”
“Hey, can opener!”
And not just from bullies, from little kids in the grocery store, too! “Mommy, what’s wrong with that kid’s teeth?!!” You wouldn’t believe the things that people say. (Or maybe you would…)
When bullies poked fun at me, I always hoped that adults would intervene. But my confidence in adults quickly faded as well. Most adults didn’t notice the jesting and teasing. Others actually laughed. In the fourth grade I was at a basketball camp, and a group of kids cornered me, making fun of my teeth. I had developed a quick wit by then and was trying to come back with some onslaughts of my own. But I don’t even remember what I had planned on saying, because I never finished my sentence. All I could manage was something like, “Oh yeah…well I can do something you can’t…”
And the coach finished my comeback: “Yeah! Chew through wood!”
Once a coach opens that door, it never shuts.
When my son was being bullied, I talked with the principal. I provided her with specifics. It wasn’t just boys. A girl in Alec’s class had just turned around in her chair the day prior, leaned on his desk and said, “Wow, you are the ugliest kid I’ve ever seen. Your mom must wonder, ‘Why is my kid so ugly!’”
The principal bragged. “Our school doesn’t tolerate any bullying.” She showed me a banner they posted. Our School Is Bully Free, the Way It’s Meant to Be. These Bully Free signs and banners are becoming even more common in schools across the country today. Google it. You can buy them all over the web, “to send a positive message and inspire students to think before they act.”
Alec and I still talk about that useless banner to this day.
Alec got to the point where some kids started pushing him and slapping the back of his neck. It was so hard for Lori and me to hear the terrible accounts day after day. Finally I told Alec, “You don’t have to take that. You can stand up for yourself.”
Alec just looked up at me with his big blue eyes and his lip quivering, “I don’t want to get into trouble.”
We ended up switching schools and enrolling him in martial arts to try to boost his confidence. He got plugged in with a group of really creative kids—like him—at his school and at church. Some of Alec’s scars slowly began to heal.
In the first week of middle school, though, some kids starting pushing him around—and during the bully’s paradise: physical education class. Alec would run around the track, and two boys would stop him and tell him, “You can’t pass.” Of course, the teacher was nowhere to be found. Note to school principals: It’s hard to be “bully free like it’s meant to be” when P.E. is a free-for-all for big kids. (Those of us who were bullied usually have terrible memories of P.E. Don’t even get me started about “picking teams.” I still have dreams about standing there alone, the last one chosen.)
I didn’t want to lose all the ground we had gained with Alec, so I asked him more about the situation. “Can you avoid these kids? Can you run somewhere else?” It’s always good to avoid the situation as best as possible. But the confrontation with these two bullies was unavoidable. Day after day they found Alec when the teacher wasn’t around.
I looked Alec in the eye and told him, “Alec, if those kids push you or corner you, hit them in the nose as hard as you can, and don’t stop swinging until someone pulls you off!”
Alec was shocked. “I thought I wasn’t supposed to fight.”
“Defending yourself is way different than fighting Alec,” I assured him. “If they bully you, you go Christmas Story on them!”
“But Dad, I’ll get suspended.”
“If you get suspended for defending yourself Alec, I’ll take the day off work, take you to ice cream and then we’ll hang out and have fun all day.” I gave him a hug. “You won’t get in trouble from me for defending yourself. You’ll get rewarded.”
I didn’t know if I was giving Alec sound advice, but speaking candidly as a father, I’ll confess that desperate situations sometimes generate desperate responses. At the time, I just wanted Alec to know that we were in his corner no matter what.
The next day when Lori brought Alec home from school, he looked scared.
“What happened?” I asked.
Alec was looking down at the ground when he talked. “I got sent to the principal’s office for fighting.”
I smiled and gave him a big hug. “Sweet! Let’s go to ice cream!”
At ice cream Alec told me the whole story. The kids stopped him on the track again and didn’t let him pass. Alec tried to go around, but one of the kids pushed him. Alec swallowed hard and started swinging. He hit one guy to the ground and the other grabbed him. Alec somehow managed to get the other kid in a headlock and started punching him as well. The punching turned to rolling on the ground. Next thing he knew, all three of them found themselves in the principal’s office.
The principal knew the other two kids by name; he didn’t know Alec. Alec told him his story. The principal said, “I don’t want to see you in here again. You can go.” Then he kept the other two in his office.
The next day one of those two kids came to school with a black eye.
Alec didn’t have any more physical confrontations that year. But the verbal abuse continued.
I wish I could tell you that Alec’s remaining years have been bully-free. They haven’t. He joined wrestling the next year in middle school, and that really helped. But during his freshman year of high school, bullies actually sat in the hallway and threw pieces of muffins at kids calling them “fags.” Alec said it happened all the time, not just to him, but to numerous kids. He just tried his best to avoid those hallways.
Alec eventually got his black belt in a Korean martial art. Funny…by the time he got it, he never had to use it. (Except when I wrestle him, of course; he always uses joint locks and hand techniques. Yikes!)
So…will standing up for yourself solve the problem? Different situations yield different results. My dad shared with me an experience similar to Alec’s:
When I was in the 4th and 5th grade, I was overweight. And being short didn’t help matters. Kids seemed to want to push me around, mostly shoving matches. The primary bully was Bobby, who was actually my best friend, went to my church, and was really the only other Christian in my school who I knew. He was tall, had a long reach, and was rather strong for a 4th grader. Bobby loved fighting, was always getting in fights at school, and I think he liked to use me for the warm-up bout. When I was in the 5th grade, at least once a week I would come home from school crying. So my parents had me spend spring vacation with my uncle Johnny who had boxed in the Navy. For one week he gave me a crash course in boxing. I actually enjoyed it—spending one-on-one time with my uncle. The next week when my friend Bobby started a fight with me, I quickly took up the boxer pose and said, “Bring it on.” Bobby looked at me, and rather than run—as I had hoped he would—he burst out laughing. As he was having a huge belly laugh he asked me, “What did you do—take boxing lessons?” Then he, with his long reach, gave me a bloody nose. So ended my boxing career.Repercussions
Does bullying have long-term effects?
Now that Alec is a senior in high school, is he completely healed from his years of harassment? Not even close. Socially, he’s tentative. And he’s definitely slow to have compassion for kids that fall in the category of “jock.”
Socially it’s been difficult for Alec as well. His trepidation around his fellow students hadn’t exactly made him outgoing and sociable. Quite the opposite, in fact. Subconsciously, Alec began pushing everyone away. He still struggles to let others “in.”
I can relate. I did the same thing, even into my college years. My skepticism toward people sometimes resulted in bitterness and quarrelling.
Bottom line: Those of us who were bullied sometimes become even more socially awkward.
Healing takes time.
Our church has been a great place of healing. Two of Alec’s closest friends from his church youth group are football players. This has stretched Alec to realize that all jocks aren’t bullies. Alec has had to learn to saturate in God’s grace and forgiveness so that he can pass it on to others.
But church isn’t always a safe haven. In junior high Alec got bullied at youth group. The junior high pastor was a huge guy—an amazing basketball player. As sharp as he was, he didn’t have any idea what being bullied looked like.
At a church winter camp, Alec was teased and ostracized by the other guys in his cabin. His solution was to withdraw by himself.
Alec had brought a stuffed monkey to this particular weekend trip and placed it on his pillow and sleeping bag during the day. One night Alec came back to the cabin to find the monkey outside, torn and lying in the mud. Alec threw his furry little companion away, too embarrassed to tell anyone. I didn’t find out about the incident until years later.
As you’re probably aware, bullying is everywhere. Most adults just don’t realize bullying’s ubiquitous reach. An article in USA Today only a few weeks ago reveals that 50 percent of U.S. high schoolers said they had “bullied, teased or taunted someone at least once.” What’s more, 37 percent of boys say “it’s okay to hit or threaten a person who angers them.” But how often do bullies—or the adults around them—think about the repercussions of those actions?
Sometimes it pushes bullied kids over the edge.
The most common response I’ve observed in almost 20 years of youth ministry is withdrawal. Those of us who have been bullied will assure you, the safest place is alone.
Bullying victims seek refuge in a variety of arenas. I always retreated to home where I could be creative, writing and drawing. I played piano as a child, so during some of the rough years I began to write songs. In retrospect, I don’t think they were very good, but they were therapeutic. And anyone reading the lyrics even today would gain insight to the bullying victim’s emotions.
My daughters recently looked through one of my “memory boxes” stuffed in the closet under the stairway. After paging through my yearbooks and drawings, they came across a folder with a bunch of my music. They saw some of the lyrics I wrote and asked me candidly, “Dad, were you serious?”
Here are the lyrics they found:
Alone I am waiting
A bridge was scratched out near the bottom:
This life isn’t for me…
Is anyone out there,
Someone who cares?
Someone whose feelings and thoughts I can share?
There has to be someone,
Someone who feels like me.
This life isn’t wanted
I don’t recall having suicidal thoughts, but I remember feeling completely alone at times and wondering if anyone understood. I longed to meet others—even one person—who felt like me. But I didn’t know where to find them.
I might as well end it
Turns out I wasn’t alone in my feelings. All over the world, ostracized teenagers are looking for camaraderie wherever and however they can find it. Some of these kids are more likely to have sex early. The American Journal of Public Health published a study a few years ago reporting that kids who are “ostracized” by their peers or—get this—“picked on by their teachers” are more likely to have sex early.
Other kids isolate themselves completely. Many of these kids discover video games.
My son Alec shared with me that video games always felt safe. In his own words:
“Video games are a place where nerds can get together and be free to do something well. I can’t kick butt in P.E. class; but I can kick butt in Halo!”I think video games and other forms of technology are fine when kids don’t obsess over them. Alec would want me to point out, too, that there have been numerous studies about good “decision-making skills” kids glean from video games.
Still, parents of bullied kids—all kids, for that matter—should watch out for obsessive behaviors. If I hadn’t limited Alec’s game time (one hour per day on school days, two hours a day on weekend days—providing exceptions when he had friends over), he may have secluded himself for hours at a time, staring at a screen. He happened to have a dad who studied youth culture, citing the most recent studies and reasoning, “You know Alec, the American Academy of Pediatrics said…” Seriously, looking back on the last five years, Alec readily admits that he’s glad Lori and I created media guidelines that encouraged him to engage in social situations (hanging out with friends) instead of absorbing even more media in isolation.
All this to say, Alec and I know that on every school campus in this city, there’s a kid just like him who’s desperately trying to avoid being bullied by a group of punks with their own self-esteem issues. Girls aren’t immune to it, either. In a recent Girl Scouts study of 1,000 girls, aged 14 to 17, 68 percent say they’ve been bullied or gossiped about on a social networking site.
My dad dealt with it, I dealt with it, Alec dealt with it…should we assume Alec’s kids will have to cope with it, too?
One kid can make a difference.
When I was in high school, that one kid was Matt. Matt wasn’t the most popular kid on campus, but he decided that he was going to care for others no matter what others said. I’ll never forget looking across campus one day and seeing Matt rolling a kid in a wheelchair to his class. Other kids were looking at Matt like, What are you doing that for, extra credit? But Matt didn’t care. When he saw someone in need, Matt acted.
Matt was in weights class with many of the football players, bench pressing and squatting enormous poundage and getting high fives of congratulations. But at lunchtime, Matt would sit with a group of outcasts. Matt broke the unspoken lines of separation. He didn’t prejudice in any way.
One kid made a decision to treat everyone the same.
Did Matt change an entire campus? No. But he made a world of difference to the handful of lives that he touched every day. I’ll never forget that. Can you imagine what that campus would have looked like with even two “Matts”? Three?
This weekend I’m speaking to 400 kids at a winter camp back east. I’m urging them, “You can make a difference!”
Sure, adults can stop some bullying—when they see it happening—but nowhere near completely. It’s just too pervasive. But maybe even better, we can encourage our kids to take action, and equip them to carry it out.
Here are some steps you can take:
- Motivate your kids to take action. Let them know that they can make a difference in someone’s life.
Our kids can make a powerful impact in the life of the bullied.
Use the power of story to communicate this cause. My book 10-Minute Talks contains several stories you can use. Some of you may have stories of your own, how someone reached out to you and impacted your life.
- They can resolve to not bully others (like 50 percent of them admit to doing).
- They can take a step of faith and reach out to someone who seems consistently isolated.
The movie To Save a Life is also perfect to talk about this issue with our kids. I get choked up every time I see the scene where Jake, the popular kid, takes the initiative to sit next to Jonny at lunch. I provide a discussion using a powerful clip from that film on our Web site with a correlating scripture and small group questions. You can find even more great discussion resources on the movie’s official site.
Equip your kids to reach out. Many of our kids may want to make a difference, but they don’t know how.
Some of the just-mentioned resources contain great examples of actions our kids can take to not only show compassion but also act on that compassion. Don’t be scared to take your kids straight to the Scriptures to help motivate them.
This past Sunday my pastor happened to teach from Philippians 2. Check how relevant verses 3 through 5 are to all of this:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…
(Philippians 2:1-5, NIV)
Can you imagine if all believers lived out this passage? We could cut down on a whole lotta bullying—that’s for sure!
We need to teach this kind of truth to our kids. The message of this passage is clear. The following is a summary of the Philippians passage in my own words…)
If you’re a follower of Christ and have his Spirit in you, then that will reveal itself in love. Humility is the key—considering others better than you! This is the life Christ modeled.
Humility is one of those “Christian” words that kids don’t spend much time thinking about. So, show them an example of humility they’ll remember: Read John 13 where Christ washed his disciples’ feet, then bring a kid to the front of the room and wash his feet. (It might be even more effective to choose a kid from your group who’s “less popular.”) Then ask others to join you in the humbling task of washing other’s feet. Make the connection of what foot washing might look like in their world, on their school campus. Then have your kids come up with ideas to “humble themselves—considering others better than themselves” at school, at church, and in their community. (I provide numerous activities and ministry ideas like the latter example in my new book Ministry by Teenagers, coming out in just a couple weeks.)
The more time we spend pointing our kids to Jesus—reading about him, studying him, talking to him in prayer—the more our kids will want to serve like Jesus.
* * *
In the movie Hotel Rwanda—the powerful true-life story of a Rwandan hotel manager who housed more than 1,000 Tutsi refugees, protecting them from the Hutu militia, we see what happens when bullying becomes genocidal murder on a massive scale.
The movie has a sobering scene between the hotel manager, Paul (Don Cheadle) and a news photographer, Jack (Joaquin Phoenix), who has just filmed the ugly reality of what was happening in Rwanda:
Paul Rusesabagina: I am glad that you have shot this footage and that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.
Yes, we’ve seen the word bullying plenty in newspaper headlines during 2010. People read the stories and say, “Oh my God, that’s horrible.” But then they go back to eating their dinners.
Jack: Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?
Paul Rusesabagina: How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?
Jack: I think if people see this footage they’ll say, “Oh my God, that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.
I started writing a book 10 years ago—a book with the working title, Bullied. I’ve had eight books published since then, three more coming out. I’ve pitched Bullied to five different publishers so far. The response always seems to be the same. “Good writing. But who’s going to buy this?”
In one scene a group of kids make their own T-shirts, drawing a picture of a kid on the front with the cross-hairs of a gun scope over the top of the kid. They put the initials, KBC underneath, standing for Kill Brett Club.
One publisher told me, “That’s so unrealistic. Kids would never do that. Besides, no teacher would allow a shirt like that in school.”
I didn’t have the guts to tell him that the anecdote was based in reality. The actual shirts had the initials KJC—for the “Kill Jonathan Club.” It started with just three of them, but soon almost a dozen people in my English class were wearing them. That’s right. Eighth grade, Mitchell Junior High School, 1984. The teacher never had a clue.
Isn’t it time we take this seriously and decide to make the difference that could very well save a life?”