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On second thought: Bullies r us

September 28, 2016

Bully for the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission and Monticello schools, who have committed to an all-out assault on bullying in our schools. While it remains to be seen what impact this new approach will actually have, it is clear that to succeed, we will need to change our adult-created culture of bullying.

Bullying, like child abuse, is not an issue that can be bullied away. It is woven into the fabric of our culture. It occurs in every context in which we as a species interact with each other: at home, school, our places of worship and in the workplace—and right now we’re just tugging on a few loose threads. This is an observation from a bully who grew up in a family where verbal, emotional and physical bullying were passed down from generation to generation like an inheritance.

My Dad was a “do as I say, not as I do” bully, a close relative of the “because I said so” bully, which can be confusing and sound bizarre coming from a person who tells a child that “actions speak louder than words.” There were, of course, other issues, but I ultimately got involved in gang violence, was marked as a “wayward child” (‘60s for “at risk”) and sent packing to live with relatives in lower Manhattan. There, on one summer’s night when the moon was full, I performed as a werewolf and terrorized a rather large crowd of my peers. It seemed like good fun to me at the time, but in retrospect, a bit scary: a frightening aggressor, an audience of teenagers, some curious, others fearful and a hot summer night. I felt powerful, thriving on the sheer thrill of it, and it could have gotten real ugly. Was that bullying? Was I responding to being bullied?

Reflection on that period calls to mind a poem that graced walls and refrigerators in many homes I visited during that era. Written by Dorothy Law Nolte, the poem is called “Children Learn What They Live.” Each line started with the word “if” and suggested first the negative consequences of raising the young with bad feelings, i.e., “If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn... /If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.”

This raises a question for me about our approach to dealing with bullying among young people. How are we as adults able to see so clearly and condemn aggressive behavior in our children, while seemingly ignoring the environment they grow up and live in?