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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 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?