It’s a timeless problem: humans who use words to belittle other humans. It happens in the schoolyard with kids and it happens on the internet with (seemingly) adults. It even happens with presidential candidates and their families.
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.
You may be too young to have heard that little playground ditty. We repeated that line when someone said something mean to us. But, in our hearts, we knew that we chanted it precisely because words can hurt us. We knew it back then and we know it now.
Words can even kill.
October is anti-bullying month
I’ve been a kid (believe it or not), I’ve been a teacher and I’ve been a parent. Since the dawn of time, there have always been bullies. When I was young, it was still known as ‘teasing’ and I don’t remember it being much more than rhymes that mocked our names:
“Jerry Apple, rotten to the core!”
And we dealt with it.
I don’t remember being scarred for life, except sometimes I can still hear the far-off voice of Bradley Taylor, the neighborhood’s resident “Mean Boy,’ chanting: “Spaur, Spaur, big fat candy bar!”
Then it got worse
Over the years, even before the lurkers and trolls in cyberspace, bullying became something more.
One day when my daughter was in fifth grade, she came home and told me that the boys played a game at recess called, “Smear the Queer.” They may or may not have known what they were saying (I’m thinking they probably did) but, still, it was taking things up a notch.
By the time my daughter reached sixth grade, a clique of decidedly Mean Girls were calling certain other girls out with the chant, “Lezzie! Lezzie!” When I met with the teacher, he said, “Girls at this age need to have thick skins. It’s just a stage they go through.”
That was unacceptable to me then and it’s unacceptable to me now.
Cipher in the Snow
In the mid-80s, the schools were becoming more sensitive to bullying. We actually talked to kids about it. As a team of gifted education teachers, we showed the film Cipher in the Snow to our classes each year.
If you don’t follow the link above (I encourage you to do so), it’s the story of Cliff Evans, a young teenager. It starts on a school bus, where Cliff walks to the front and says to the driver, “I’m sorry. Would you please let me off?”
The next thing we see is the boy collapsing in the snow on the roadside. All attempts at CPR fail. The rest of the film is spent trying to figure out what happened to him.
The coroner said, “I couldn’t find anything wrong. The heart just stopped beating.”
The principal asks Cliff’s math teacher from the previous year to round up a delegation of 10 students to represent the school at the funeral, but the teacher can’t find that many kids who admit to knowing him. The film’s flashbacks show that when Cliff wasn’t being ignored, he was being bullied.
And words were the weapon of choice.
We are left to ponder at the end whether Cliff died because no one loved him. Each year that we showed the film, a lively classroom discussion followed.
Modern day bullies
I read just this week about Whitney Kropp, a shy, socially challenged 16-year-old girl from Michigan who got the surprise of her life when she was elected to her school’s homecoming court.
Until some of the kids told her that everyone had voted for her as a joke.
She said that when she found out, she considered committing suicide.
In this particular case, though, the community stepped forward and this courageous girl showed up at the game in a beautiful gown, jewelry, shoes, makeup and new hairstyle, all donated by local businesses.
I don’t think at age 16 that I would have had that much courage.
We can do something
The problem with words is that, used as swords, they can kill—if not the physical body (though some bullied kids have committed suicide), then the spirit. And in the internet age, those words stick around, visible forever.
Empathy is a skill in short supply these days. But as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we can help to foster it in our kids.
Just the simple question, “How do you think that made the other person feel?” can help kids put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
As adults, we learn how to handle the bullies of the world. Kids don’t have those coping skills yet. We may not know what is going on in their lives. Or how important that little smile might be to them when you are standing in front of them in the grocery store line.
But it is.
Because these are the same kids we’re going to be turning the world over to someday.
October is National Anti-bullying Month. Reach out with a smile and a kind word to a kid if you can.
What about you?
Did you experience or witness bullying when you were a child?
Do you think that cyber-bullying has changed the intensity and impact?