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Connecting the Isms

  • Posted on November 1, 2012 at 11:11 PM

What does it take to hate someone you don’t know? What does it take to dismiss someone you don’t know as unimportant or unacceptable? What does it take to merely underestimate them?

Racism and sexism are the two major instances of this in this country. But “we” also hate, dismiss, and/or underestimate people for their religion, for their political affiliations, for their country of origin, or even for their sports team. “We” hate, dismiss, and/or underestimate people for their abilities and their impairments.

Why? What does that prejudice get “us?” There’s got to be some sort of motivation, doesn’t there? To continue holding onto a prejudice, you either have to be exposed exclusively to examples that fit your expectations or you have to resist being corrected by your own experience, by the logic and experiences shared by others, and by a lot of other information that is available in order to hold onto something that makes no sense.

People hurt others through prejudice and acts of prejudice, through bullying and teasing, through abuse and neglect. The only connection I can find is an under-appreciation of life—particularly other people’s lives—and an over-emphasis on self.

What is this but a lack of empathy? Yet, it’s perfectly “normal,” so normal it’s rampant in our society and in many others. Is this what people strive for when they try to make their children “normal?” Why?

Midweek Music Break

  • Posted on February 22, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Our choices as parents have consequences that last a lifetime—our kids’ life times.  Choose what you do and how you live wisely.  Your kids deserve it.

Bad Mothers

  • Posted on October 31, 2011 at 9:22 AM

What does it take to make someone a bad mother or father?

Anything less than perfection doesn’t make you a bad parent. You’re allowed to make mistakes. You will make mistakes. It’s inevitable; being a parent doesn’t make you any less human.

Some behaviors go beyond simple mistakes.

Parenting is not a selfish endeavor. Parenting requires sacrifice and generosity, compassion and discipline, love and giving, helpfulness and respect.

If you don’t respect your child, you are a bad parent.

If you don’t care what’s good for your child, you are a bad parent.

If you abuse your child, you are definitely a bad parent. And I don’t just mean smacking him or her around or subjecting him or her to sexual contact. Verbal abuse is abuse. Bullying and manipulation is abuse. Tearing apart your child’s self-esteem is abuse.

Children need to be loved and cared for. They need to be supported—physically, financially, developmentally, and emotionally.

We all make mistakes. We all go through rough patches. That’s no excuse for abuse.

When you abuse your child, when you don’t care what’s good for your child, when you constantly disrespect your child, when you bully your child, then you cross a boundary that you can’t step back from. You can repent, you can make amends, but you cannot uncross that line. You can’t take it back.

Knowing the “system” fails kids is different than seeing it in action with a child you’re trying to protect. Knowing there are bad mothers out there is different than screaming into the phone at a woman who doesn’t care about her child and only wants him for the financial aid he entitles her to. That and the feel of power it gives her to force him to do what she wants, regardless of what’s good for him, regardless of what he wants and needs.

I know there are worse people out there. I know things could be so much worse. But when the system fails, I also know a week, a day, or even an hour is too long to wait for the system to work. Holding a teary-eyed teen in your arms because he has to go back to a place where he’s disrespected, abused, threatened, bullied and manipulated is awful. It doesn’t help that it could be worse. Knowing that just makes it hurt more. Knowing I can’t save him from yesterday, from last night, from this morning, and for however long it takes for the system to work is agony.

A child is not a piece of property. A child is not a weapon to use in a personal war for power. Every child deserves to be loved, to be cherished, and to be nurtured.

And if you don’t believe that, if you don’t get it, THEN DON’T BE A PARENT!!!

You’re not worthy of the title.

Bullying (Part 12): Bullying Reinforces Status

  • Posted on November 30, 2010 at 11:03 AM

In my last three posts, I discussed power as it relates to bullying.  A parallel phenomenon is bullying to reinforce status.  

In the United States, status is far from irrelevant.  We don’t live in an aristocracy, where Lords and Ladies that stay Lords and Ladies no matter what.  We don’t live in a caste system, where we are expected to fill whatever function we were born into.  But we do have classes.

In the United States, status and power are intertwined.  Unlike these strict societies, where power is wielded based on status, here power can be acquired from the lowest and lost by the highest.  As the power exchanges hands, so does status. 

In a movie I watched a while back—The Skulls starring Joshua Jackson—there was the following brief discussion:

“Is America really a class society?  Or is it the meritocracy we’re taught it is since we were in kindergarten?  Mr. McNamara?”

“Well, actually, I believe that it’s both, sir.”

“How can it be both?”

“It’s been my experience…that merit is rewarded with wealth, and with wealth comes class.”

For a long time, that observation struck me as something of a truism.  Yet, even as the movie unfolds, it demonstrated some examples of the severe abuses of power that may be used to reinforce this notion of status, and how wealth is used as a lure to suck in those with merit.

Apply that to life.  Apply that to the experiences of those who do not brush sleeves with that kind of power.  Apply that to those who hope that the degree of corruption described in that movie is only fiction.  Apply that to life, and you’ll see that status is far more complicated in the United States than is described by this movie.

According to Wikipedia, caste is described as: “an elaborate and complex social system that combines elements of occupation, endogamy, culture, social class, tribe affiliation and political power.”  Thinking about our own culture, I do wonder if it’s really so different.  The main difference seems to be the ability for those with merit (or those who lack it) to change their situation.  In the socio-political sense, this is a big, big difference.  However, for those who lack the opportunity to change their situation, the end-result is the same.


I grew up in a middle-income household.  We weren’t rich, but we didn’t lack for basic necessities like food, health care, housing, or clothes.  We often lived in school systems where I interacted with children that were either significantly poorer than we were or significantly richer than we were.  Some of the “rich kids” made fun of me, because I couldn’t afford to shop at the mall for my clothes.  Mostly, though, I was judged by my teachers, professionals, and peers based on who I was and what I did.

Then, I became an adult.  I married very young (18), and neither my husband nor I knew how to support ourselves or our growing family.  We relied on state aid for medical care, and for some nutritional needs (WIC, when the boys were young).  As a student, I was intelligent (if a bit naïve and overly idealistic), studious, and, well, “gifted.”  I was one of those who could be regarded as having merit, or having the potential for merit.  As an adult, I was poor white trash, too stupid and too ignorant to understand the dumbed-down legalese that was pushed in front of my face whenever my family had a need we weren’t able to meet.  Of course, nothing about me really changed.  I was still who I was.  But because my circumstances changed, my status changed; because my status changed, how I was perceived changed.

The difference in how I was treated was shocking.

As an adult, struggling to deal with the realities of a society that revolved around status, I have been bullied by those whose status was oh-so-superior to mine.  From doctors to social workers, from administrators to council members (i.e. local government), and from all sorts of people in between.  My status meant I didn’t matter.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the system is designed to provide for people like me, for families like mine.  But, who I am, what I think, what I know, what I’ve experienced—none of that matters.

Of course, now that I have a graduated Summa Cum Laude from Herzing University with a degree in Business Administration, now that I have been admitted as a graduate student at National-Louis University, now that I have started my own business, things are changing.  Once again, I am among those with merit, or at least the potential for merit.  My status is heightened.  My self—the essence that is me—is unchanged.

Yet, once again, the difference in how I am treated is shocking.


We live in a society where people with differences—particularly, but not exclusively, people with disabilities—have status points deducted from them just for those differences.  For people who are perceived as having merit, this is another challenge to overcome—an unfair challenge, but only a challenge.  For people who are perceived as not having merit, this can mean something entirely different.  It can mean a forfeiture of basic human rights.  It can mean a life-time of oppression—always being at the bottom with no way up.  It can even mean forced imprisonment for the crime of being unvalued.

We live in a society with class.  We live in a society where merit (as perceived by that society) can be rewarded with wealth for those who seek wealth.  We live in a society where wealth elevates class.  We live in a society where contributions made to society by those who forego the pursuit of wealth also elevate class.  But we also live in a society where the people who have neither wealth, nor class, nor merit (as perceived by that society), have no opportunity to elevate their class, and where some of those are treated their whole lives as if they as are something “less than.”  Less than worthy.  Less than right.  Less than human.

Systemic bullying enforces this social regime.  It isn’t bred into our bones.  It’s learned.  We learn it every day, since they day we first became aware.  Perhaps, before even that—at least, before our society recognizes awareness.  Bullying is built into the fabric of our culture.  We rely on it to keep people in their places.  Only those who can rise above it can advance.  Separating the wheat from the chaff.  And those who are left behind—the many who are left behind—know not this “land of opportunity” that is supposed to be so much better than all that came before.

Bullying (Part 9): Power

  • Posted on November 16, 2010 at 1:41 AM

Power is everything.

At least, that’s what some would have us believe. 

They believe it.  To them, power is above morality, above duty, above right and wrong.  What is moral, but what the people in power claim it to be?  What is duty, but what the people in power say it to be?  What is right and wrong, but that they tell us it is so?  And, because they are the ones with power those things—morality, duty, right and wrong—don’t really apply to them, unless there is someone with more power to declare that it does.

I believe in truth.  I believe right and wrong are absolutes, but that we—being finite and subjective—cannot always perceive them accurately.  I believe morality is our imperfect pursuit to perceive right and wrong.  And I believe our sense of duty is derived from our morality.  I do not believe the absolute versions of these things are subject to human power.  But our perceptions of them are.  And, in our finite and subjective existence, our perceptions are all we really have.

Power is abstract—it is not seen, but it is experienced.  It is derived from both influence and force.  Ideally, power is exercised through influence—we persuade one another, changing each other’s perceptions until common ground is found and a common effort is exerted.  This is the power of advocacy. 

Often, power is exercised through force.  On the national and international level, we make laws and we enforce them.  We go to war.  We enforce treaties.  We withhold trade.  On an individual level, we sue.  We fight.  We argue.  We pick up our disobedient child and carry them away—away to bed, away from the busy street, away from the candy aisle.

Force is not the ideal.  It may not be right, in an absolute sense.  But, sometimes it is necessary.  Sometimes, in our finite and subjective existences, it is the best we can manage, and our reasons for using force are worth the costs.  Because we’re not perfect.  Because our systems are not perfect.  Because, however much we should be able to persuade our children not to run into the street, however much we should be able to persuade nations not to bomb the hell out of each other, however much we should be able to persuade people not to kill each other—sometimes we can’t, sometimes we fail, and so we resort to force.

To exert force, there must be power.  For our societies and our systems to function, there must be power.  We don’t know another way—at least not one that is widely effective.

But power corrupts.

Corrupted power leads to influence and force being exerted, not for the sake of the good, but for the sake of the people in power.  For those who believe power is everything, being the one in power is the goal.  Whether they began as corrupted individuals or were corrupted by the power they exercised, they corrupt the power they use.  They exercise what power they have to maintain that power, and to get more.

Bullying is one form of corrupted power exercised through force.  Bullying, as exercised in the adult world, is often—if not always—an abuse of power.

Bullying (Part 5): Why Do Children Bully?

  • Posted on November 1, 2010 at 3:29 PM

After a few distractions, I’m back to the issue of bullying.  I started with a description of bullying, where I attempted to distinguish between bullying, harassment and abuse.  Then, I discussed boys bullying and girls bullying.  I left off with a thought for bullies, because it is my experience that many bullies are victims themselves.

Now, I would like to explore some of the other reasons for bullying.

Two Basic Reasons

There are two basic reasons children engage in bullying behavior: (1) to buoy the self-esteem of the bully, and (2) to sink the self-esteem of the victim.  These are two different, distinct motives.

Victims of bullying and abuse often need to boost their self-esteem.  There are many ways people attempt to do this.  One way, as I mentioned earlier, is to engage in bullying.  Those surrounding this individual—parents, teachers, other supportive adults, and their own peers—can help this person find productive ways to build self-esteem, and thus eliminate the need to bully.  It’s not always easy, especially when the abusive situations that trigger the need cannot be resolved, but it’s worth the effort.

Not all bullies are like that, though.  Not all bullies are needy children stuck in an unendurable situation they don’t know how to deal with.  Some kids bully for fun.  These people bully not to boost their own self-esteem, but because they like to witness the effects on others’ self-esteem.

In my lay opinion, I consider this behavior pathological.  Perhaps there is already a psychological diagnosis for this kind of behavior, but I suspect our society is too enamored and forgiving regarding bullying for this to be the case.  Disabilities and disorders, after all, are determined on the basis of what society considers normal or acceptable.  If being morally challenged isn’t pathological, why would bullying be so?

America Loves Bullies

The increase in bullying (or, perhaps, the increase in our attention on bullying) has been called “epidemic.”  And part of that epidemic is that bullying is an acceptable pastime in our culture. 

I would say most kids are good kids.  But not all kids are good.  Some kids are bad.  Kids who take pleasure in other peoples’ pain and suffering and inflict pain and suffering for the sake of their own fun are not good kids.  (If this behavior is pathological, however, that “badness” can be addressed and remedied, much like the bad behavior of addicts can be addressed by addressing their addiction.)

And yet we not only tolerate this behavior, there are forces in our culture that actually encourage it.  Bullying is celebrated in television, in movies, in music, in advertisements, in books and short stories and even in news articles.  Bullying pervades our culture.  Adults, kids, corporations, public organizations, and even non-profit organizations and civil rights movements engage in bullying because it works.  Not only does it work—meaning that bullying can help you achieve the results you want—but for those willing to take pleasure in other people’s suffering, it feels good.  It makes you feel powerful.  And that feeling is honest, if not true.  (You are exercising power, but the power wasn’t rightfully yours.)

So, What Can We Do?

For bullies that use this behavior as a coping mechanism, the “solution” is to discover why and to stop it, if possible, while providing the child with other coping mechanisms.  It’s not easy, but it is rather straightforward.

For bullies that use this behavior because they enjoy it or because they perceive bullying as the cultural norm, the “solution” is neither easy nor simple.  Assuming that we’re not going to get these kids in therapy any time soon, we can only do so much.  We can attempt to change the culture.  And that = HARD and LONG-TERM COMMITMENT.  There are those who have been making that effort and investing their time.  I applaud them, especially Bullying Stories.  The recent emphasis in the news is also a good thing, or it could be if less attention was paid to why the victims were bullied (i.e., the implication that bullying = homophobia) and more attention was paid to the fact that the problem isn’t new and that people with many kinds of differences are the victims of bullies.

We also have to be vigilant.  As parents (of the bully or the victim) and as “the village” (i.e., the bystanders), we have to notice bullying and we have to take steps to stop it.  We have to assert that these behaviors are not acceptable.  We have to acknowledge that bullying is not a rite of passage.  We have to allow our minds to acknowledge that bullying, harassment and abuse are different and that none of these behaviors are acceptable.

Next, to “prove” that bullying is not a rite of passage, as some claim, I will demonstrate that bullying continues on into the adult world.  And, as much as I appreciate Joel Burns willingness to speak out, I have to say, sometimes it doesn’t get better as you get older.  Sometimes it gets worse

Bullying (Part 4): A Thought for the Bully

  • Posted on October 23, 2010 at 4:22 AM

I could stop at bullying is bad; there’s a difference between bullying, harassment and abuse; and both boys and girls can be bullies, but the bullying behavior doesn’t usually look the same.  I could stop there and just move onto bullying in the adult world.

But I can’t really.  Bullying is bad.  Bullies are behaving badly.  But that doesn’t mean that bullies themselves are necessarily bad.  Perhaps that seems like an argument in semantics.  Perhaps I may come across overly empathetic.  But…it’s not, and I’m not.

My Defense

Semantics:  I try not to tell my kids “you’re naughty.”  Semantics, perhaps, but I believe it sends the wrong message, especially to literal-minded youngsters.  Instead, I say “that’s naughty,” referring to the behavior.  I wasn’t raised with that distinction, but I believe in making it.  Like any other imperfect parent, sometimes I fail, but that’s not the point.  My kids are good kids, and they need to know that.  Sometimes my kids do bad things, and they need to know that, too. 

It’s more than semantics.  The first is a statement of being; whereas, the second is a statement of doing.  There is a real difference there, and I believe that this difference can be unconsciously, unintentionally internalized.  I can’t prove that.  I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist.  But I believe if kids grow up hearing they’re bad or naughty all the time, they’re going to believe it so strongly that they become what you said they were (without outside interference).  So I do make that distinction.

Overly-Empathetic:  I’ve known, both as an adult and as a child, a variety of children who engage in bullying behaviors.  Often, if you delve deeply enough, there is something significantly wrong in a child’s life that leads to bullying, though it is not always direct or readily apparent.  If you address what’s going wrong in that child’s life, you may be able to stop the bullying—both as a current behavior and as a coping mechanism.  In effect, when one child is bullying another, what you’re often seeing are two children who are hurting badly, not just one.

My Argument

Most kids are good kids—they’re good kids who occasionally do bad things.  Bullying is one of the many bad things a child may do.  Saying it doesn’t make the bullying any less bad, nor does it make it any less important to stop the bullying.  But in order to stop the bullying you often need to understand the whys behind the behavior.

I know a child who used to engage in bullying behavior.  It was rather shocking, because this child was young and bullying was not tolerated in the environment in which I interacted with the child.  (Yes, I’m being vague to protect the identity of the child.)  My first reaction was to try to stomp out the bullying behaviors—and I took a very authoritarian approach to this.  The child was young enough for me to pick him up kicking and screaming (literally) in order to discipline him.  And I did.  His behavior was unacceptable, and he had to know that.

But it didn’t work.  The bullying behaviors, along with other unacceptable behaviors, continued.  Sometimes the victims would change, but the bullying didn’t stop, because the need for bullying didn’t stop.

The calmer, more rational I got, the more I saw that this was a child in pain.  Because of my relationship with this child I was able to get close enough to see that pain and identify the cause (it took years, sadly).  The child was being emotionally abused—not in the environment in which I interacted with him, but in his home environment.  The child’s negative behaviors were coping mechanisms.  He was in pain and his world was unstable.  He felt he had no control, and bullying was a means of obtaining some control over his world.

I tried to confront the abuser, but she didn’t see her behavior as abuse.  She refused to acknowledge the abuse.  I researched parental abuse to see how to report it, and in my research I discovered that the state I lived in does not even acknowledge this kind of behavior as abuse.  I talked to as many people as I could, but I could not find a way to make it stop.

Then, I got creative.  I could do nothing about the parent.  But I had limited access to the child.  I could affect him.  So, while his mother tore him down, I built him up.  I enlisted others to help me.  I’m proud to say that he now has a healthy dose of both self-esteem and empathy.  He was even brave enough to confront his mother and put a stop to some of the abuse.  I’m proud, not of my own cleverness, but of him.  He is a good kid, and he knows it.  And, yes, sometimes he still does bad things, but he’s not bad and he’s not a bully.

I have seen other kids who engage in bullying behaviors as coping mechanisms.  These kids are, in my experience, often bullied, harassed or abused by adults in their life—adults who they should be able to trust, who should be taking care of them, who are hurting them instead.  If bullying is all a child knows—or even just what the child knows best—the child is likely to engage in bullying behaviors.  And for a few moments out of his or her day that child is going to be the one on top instead of the one being crushed.

I say this not to defend bullying behavior.  These behaviors are damaging to the bully and to the victim and they should not be tolerated.  But addressing the behaviors requires a willingness to explore the root cause(s) of the behaviors.  If we do not, we risk the possibility that we’re ignoring warning signs of a serious situation that will, if not address, create worse problems in the future.

Of course, not all bullies engage in bullying behaviors as a coping mechanism.  There are other reasons children engage in bullying behaviors.  And that’s something I will cover in my next post.

Bullying (Part 3): “Girls Will Be Girls”

  • Posted on October 18, 2010 at 5:14 PM

For some reason, bullying is associated with boys in American culture.  Worse than dismissing boys’ bullying as “boys will be boys,” girls’ bullying is simply not acknowledged.  Sometimes it’s even celebrated.  When conforming to gender norms, girls’ bullying behaviors are different from those exhibited by boys.  It’s different, but it’s not “better.”  It’s certainly no less bullying, neither is it less harmful to the victim or to the bully.

What does “girls will be girls” mean?  Girls gossip.  They talk about other people behind their backs—what they’re doing, what they’re wearing, how they look, how they speak, and who they’re dating and why.  Girls travel in cliques.  They go to the bathroom together and walk down the halls together.  They talk on the telephone, sometimes when they’re standing right next to each other in the halls.

Girls put others down over the silliest of things.  Some girls do this so reflexively they’re not even aware that they’ve done it.  When girls are being girls, anyone can end up with the sharp point of a girl’s tongue sticking in their ear.  One day you’re putting down your best friend for doing something that is socially unacceptable, the next day it’s the girl who sits next to you in math.  It’s not nice, but it is ‘girls being girls.’  However unfortunate these behaviors may be, it is not bullying.

Bullying is pervasive, usually against people perceived as inferior in some way.  Girls bully by badgering and intimidating others.  It’s a means of controlling situations through force of self—and, in the case of girls, physical dominance rarely has anything to do with it.  In my experience, a girl who is a bully often disguises herself as the friend of her victim(s).  This may involve a twisted, heightened form of peer-pressure from the queen of a clique; or it may be between two playmates.

The girl bully that is prominent in my childhood was an example of the latter.  You see, one of the hardest things about not going to summer camp as a child was that there were long stretches of the summer when all my regular friends were gone—often to the same camp together, which left me feeling even more excluded.  For one or two agonizing weeks I had to stretch myself socially just to have anyone to play with.  This was always difficult; making friends was hard enough without having to do so as the one left behind.

One summer I played with an older girl who was visiting her grandparents.  She was mean.  She was bossy.  She was also the only one around for me to play with.  All my ideas were stupid.  But when she put my ideas into her own words they became brilliant games we could play.  She was always the leader, always the princess or whatever plumb role our game might happen to have.  And the worst part of it all was how she was able to manipulate me into feeling privileged because she was willing to play with me.

This is bullying.  It’s about dominance; but emotional dominance is the stock and trade of girls, not physical dominance.  But, don’t let that dissuade you; it’s still bullying.

When girls’ bullying escalates into harassment, it takes on a more cutting, more heavily targeted tone.  Consider for a moment that girls, when conforming to neurological and gender norms, gossip about others.  Now imagine for a moment that all that gossip, backbiting, and meanness is targeted on a single individual.  Imagine that the victim is targeted not by one girl, but by a clique of girls who travel together and try to one-up each other as they tear apart their victim emotionally.  That is harassment, and it happens a lot.

As a child, I was never very popular.  I didn’t travel in the popular circles.  But I usually had one friend in those circles who saw me as quirky instead of weird.  Such a small thing can make a really big difference.  That one friend acted as something of a barrier between me and constant, female-style harassment.  But being on the outside, I witnessed that harassment of others and felt powerless to stop it.  However much I stood up for or validated the victim, I couldn’t stop the harassment itself.  Like the gossiping and the bullying, girls’ harassment tends to be primarily emotional, but nonetheless devastating.

Finally, girls can be just as abusive as boys.  The physical violence is often less obvious.  Girls, when conforming to gender norms, do not roll around on the ground and pull each other’s hair as is sometimes portrayed in movies.  Cat fights tend to be prevalent in certain sub-cultures, but it is not the mainstream.  This does not mean girls cannot or are not abusive.  The violence, as I said, is subtler, but can often be more dangerous because of that subtlety.  The violence girls inflict on each other can range from “poisoning” with non-lethal (but still dangerous) chemicals—like slipping an overdose of laxatives in a girl’s drink—to reckless endangerment, where a girl chased another girl (who was on foot) in a car, driving on the sidewalk to better make her point.  It can also include manipulating the guys in the girls’ clique to sexually harass their victim, which is often with the intent of setting the girl up for public humiliation when it’s revealed the guy(s) didn’t even want her to begin with.  (I’ve seen guys try to do this on their own, too, but it never seems to work as effectively.)

This violence is rarely one on one.  It’s often done in a collective manner.  The girls who are daring enough to perform these acts are often well-thought-of by the adults in their lives, and feel sufficiently secure in their reputations that, even if their victim were foolish enough to tell she wouldn’t be believed by anyone with the authority to act.  (If you’ve seen Cruel Intentions, then you’ve seen a dramatized version of this—most girls that try it, however, are not quite that successful or resourceful.)  To further isolate themselves from repercussions, the bully-girls work diligently to maintain their reputation with adults, while performing acts that are attributed to their victim in such a way that puts their victim’s reputation in jeopardy, further eroding the possibility that one “trouble-maker’s” word would trump their collective word as to what happened.

The bullying girls inflict on other girls is insidious and subtle, but it is no less brutal, no less tragic for that.  In some ways, it is more so.  Girls often cannot show off their bruises or their scars.  It’s all internal.  Even when their life is endangered with abuse, there is rarely any visible evidence to attest to the danger they were placed in by their peers.  Girls will be girls.  But girls should not be allowed to inflict others with their cruelty.  And yet it goes on, because, after all, girls aren’t really bullies.  That’s just boy-stuff and it’s all good.


[Coming Next:  “You’ve Got to Wonder Why?”]

Bullying (Part 2): “Boys Will Be Boys”

  • Posted on October 15, 2010 at 11:15 PM

Boys will be boys, but what does that mean? 

When conforming to cultural gender norms, “boys will be boys” refers to the tendency for young males to enjoy getting dirty, playing rough and doing things that girls (when conforming to gender norms) consider icky.

In relation to the bullying behaviors attributed to “boys will be boys,” it refers to pushing, fighting and calling each other names.  But despite the pressure to dismiss bullying as “boys being boys,” there is a difference.

Yes, boys will be boys, as my children prove.  Brandon and Will don’t always get along, but sometimes they do.  Whether they’re getting along or not, they often play roughly with each other.  They wrestle.  They try to pin each other to the ground.  They chase each other and call each other names.  They tease and make fun of each other.  They poke and prod at each other’s weak spots—mentally, physically and emotionally.

This is boys being boys.  It is also sibling rivalry.

This is not bullying.  This is not harassment.  This is not abuse.

What’s the difference?  Despite the persistence of Brandon and Will’s rivalry, they are not doing this to hurt one another or to dominate each other.  They’re having fun.  Even when one of them is physically or emotionally hurt, they’re back at it in a few moments—laughing and smiling.  They both enjoy interacting with each other in this manner.

I remember, as a child, having a bully nearby.  The memories are rather vague.  I was very young—five or six—and have lived several places since then.  I don’t remember his name.  But I do remember he often tried to intimidate the younger kids, myself included, into doing what he wanted.  He would put his shoulders back and puff out his chest, towering over us, and tell us what to do.  As much as we tried to avoid him, he seemed to prefer playing with younger kids, because he could make us do what he wanted.  His whole demeanor changed whenever my brother or any of the other older kids came around.

This isn’t “boys being boys.”  It’s bullying.  He wasn’t physically violent and he didn’t target anyone in particular, besides those weaker and smaller than he was, so it wasn’t abuse or harassment.  He was just a bully—unpleasant, but not particularly dangerous.  Most of the self-assertive techniques I read about in the papers these days would probably have worked on him.

In junior high school, there was another child—the same age as me—who was more than a bully.  We first met when I arrived at the elementary school he attended in sixth grade.  Up until that point, this boy was recognized as the smartest kid in class.  He was also cool.  He was also surprisingly friendly to me that first day.  Having looked at my scholastic record, the principal put me in a differentiated English class, which is the first I’d ever encountered a “gifted and talented” class.  That class was in the morning, so I didn’t participate until the second day.  This boy was, of course, the star of that class.  As I said, up until that class he’d been quite nice to me.  Then, as we sat in the circle, I made a mistake. 

The teacher told me that since I had not read the book they were discussing, I wasn’t expected to do more than listen.  And for the first twenty minutes I did exactly that.  Then, the teacher asked a question about the book that none of the other students—including the star of the class—could answer.  They’d (presumably) read the book and they couldn’t answer the question.  I waited and waited and waited, but no matter how she tried to lead them to the answer, none of them knew it.  So I raised my hand.  And I answered the question.  I knew the answer from the discussion and because I understood plot and character motive on an instinctive level.  I answered a question about a book I hadn’t read that he couldn’t answer even though he’d read the book.  And I became the star of the class. 

And that was the start of it all.  For the next 3 years he tormented me.  It wasn’t simple bullying.  It wasn’t merely intimidation and badgering.  It started that way, but it escalated.  At first, he tried to best me academically, but there were subjects that I always won at (though, I didn’t regard it as a competition).  When he couldn’t best me academically, he bullied me.  When bullying didn’t make me stop “showing off” by answering questions and showing my intelligence and creativity, he started harassing me.  He tormented me in school and he threatened and chased me outside of school.  It was targeted harassment; it was personal; it was revenge for a crime I didn’t even realize I’d committed.  I tried standing up to him and I tried ignoring; it didn’t help.  He had a very strong, very personal motive for his behavior.  He got something out of it, and he wasn’t going to stop.  It probably would have continued indefinitely—at least as long as I stayed there—if he hadn’t made a mistake.

One day when I was walking down a bike path in the woods, he and a group of his friends saw me.  They threw rocks at me (though it was obvious that they were not trying to hit me—they all had better aim than that).  They taunted and teased me.  I ran.  They chased me.  I hid.  They hunted me.  They weren’t trying to catch me, but they were trying to make me afraid—and they succeeded.

Then, I caught up with two other students.  One of these guys was friends with my brother; I was friends with his sister.  The other was kind-of-sort-of friends with the boy who was tormenting me.  They were both the “boys will be boys” type of boys; they weren’t particularly nice to me, but they also didn’t tolerate boys hurting girls.  They saw me and they started teasing me about running like I was.  Then they realized that I was really afraid.  And then the boy who was tormenting me, along with his cronies, topped the rise on their bicycles.  My brother’s friend asked me what was going on, and I told him.  He asked me why, and I told him I didn’t know.  So, my brother’s friend went over to the boys who were chasing me and explained, quite sensibly, that if they didn’t leave me alone, then he would tell my brother what they were up to and my brother (who was three years older than us and quite big—football-muscles big) would get a bunch of his friends together and they’d kick their f***in’ a**es for f***in’ with his little sister.  While he did that, the other guy asked me if I really didn’t know why the tormenter had targeted me.  I told him I really didn’t.  So, he explained it to me; from that moment in sixth grade and all the supposed slights in between—the boy who tormented me couldn’t stand it that a girl was smarter than him and didn’t have the decency not to show it.  I said, “That’s absurd.”  The guy shrugged.  “But that’s just it.  I mean, really.  It’s stupid.  It’s f***ed up.  But no.  You say ‘absurd.’”

It took me quite a while to fully grasp what he meant by that.  I’m still not entirely sure I understand why my tormenter’s self-esteem was such that my being smarter than him was perceived as such a threat.  However much I do not understand the misogyny or the neurotypicality that makes my tormenter’s motive make sense, I do know his behavior wasn’t just bullying.  It was harassment.  And much of what I have heard and read about that is being labeled bullying is this sort of harassment.  The motives may be different, but the motives are more complicated and more personal than mere bullying.  The children (and adults) who are targeted for harassment are targeted for more than just their relative weakness; they are targeted for their differences, for imagined slights or for other, specific reasons.  Harassers get more out of harassing their victims than bullies get out from their victims.  When behavior like this starts—targeted, on-going harassment—it’s escalated beyond bullying and we need to acknowledge that in our language and in our remedies.

I’ve been lucky.  I’ve never been beaten up.  Personally, I attribute this “luck” to my brother and his superior social skills.  Twice I’ve been threatened:  once by a guy and once by a girl.  The guy stopped chasing me when he learned who my brother was.  The girl targeted me because she had reason to dislike my brother (a woman scorned and all of that), and she wanted to show it by beating me up.  Fortunately for me, one of my brother’s female friends interfered.

I can’t share a personal story of physical abuse—at least not of a nature that could be described as bullying.  But many stories I’ve read lately have involved children beating up other children on a repeated basis.  This isn’t new.  I know that.  But it’s not bullying; and it bothers me that the stories in the news are reporting it as bullying.  Beating someone up is not bullying; it’s abuse; it’s assault, perhaps assault and battery.  I’ve heard stories where assertiveness has made a difference.  My husband has told me such a story.  But, whether or not assertiveness is an issue, we’re talking about abuse and assault—where talking about crimes.

Boys will be boys.  Some boys are bullies.  I think bullying is morally wrong.  I think bullying should be addressed and that both bullies and victims deserve our attention.  We need to find effective ways to prevent bullying and teach solutions to both bullies and their victims to prevent bullying behavior.  But I don’t think bullying should be a crime.  I really don’t think bullying is our problem, except in the sense that bullying is like the “gateway drug” to more serious problems.  The solution is not to create anti-bullying legislation. 

The solution is to call all this so-called bullying that’s been in the news what it is: harassment and abuse/assault.  If harassment and abuse aren’t already crimes, then they should be crimes.  But I believe they are already crimes.  And we should treat them as such instead of dismissing it as “boys being boys.”

[Next, I will write about “girls being girls.”  After all, boys aren’t the only bullies and bullying behavior from girls is often different from bullying behavior from boys.]

Bullying (Part 1): What is Bullying?

  • Posted on October 11, 2010 at 3:38 AM

In the US, bullying is often associated with physical, verbal or emotional violence.  In the course of my life I’ve seen the connotative meaning of bullying (what people regard as bullying behavior) shift in subtle but meaningful ways.

According to bully is defined as follows:


1. a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people.

–verb (used with object)

6. to act the bully toward; intimidate; domineer.

–verb (used without object)

7. to be loudly arrogant and overbearing.

As a child, I regarded this dictionary definition rather literally—not surprising, since literal interpretations are my default, especially with word meanings.  Yet, I have noticed that in many settings bullying behaviors are not recognized as such until those behaviors surpass the definition of bullying and cross over into harassment or abuse.

Consider the definition of harass:

–verb (used with object)

1. to disturb persistently; torment, as with troubles or cares; bother continually; pester; persecute.

2. to trouble by repeated attacks, incursions, etc., as in war or hostilities; harry; raid.

Consider also the definition of abuse:

–verb (used with object)

1. to use wrongly or improperly; misuse: to abuse one’s authority.

2. to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way: to abuse a horse; to abuse one's eyesight.

3. to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about; revile; malign.

4. to commit sexual assault upon.


6. wrong or improper use; misuse: the abuse of privileges.

7. harshly or coarsely insulting language: The officer heaped abuse on his men.

8. bad or improper treatment; maltreatment: The child was subjected to cruel abuse.

9. a corrupt or improper practice or custom: the abuses of a totalitarian regime.

10. rape or sexual assault.

Since I have begun blogging about autism and neurodiversity, I have heard many stories of “bullying” which describe not bullying, but harassment and abuse.  They are not the same.  Bullying, denotatively speaking, is a much milder version of similar behavioral patterns.  If bullying were stopped when it was just bullying, then victims would experience a lot less trauma and would, therefore, be less likely to suffer PTSD.

Unfortunately, at least in American culture, bullying is regarded as so normal and acceptable that bullying behavior is not described as such until it becomes harassment or abuse.  And even when it reaches the point of harassment or abuse there’s often little that people can or will do to stop it. 

The questions I hope to address over the next several posts (sorry, I don’t know how many posts it will take) are these:  How did we go so far wrong?  And, what can we do to turn back the tide of violence?