bullies are cowards

October 12, 2010 |  Category:   life parenting

I think one of the most frightening stories to hear as a parent are the ones about bullying. Everyone is aware of the rash of recent suicides among teens, and If you’re of the mind to lay fault entirely with the victim and think that the victim was weak and stupid and selfish to take their own life, then your world must be more black and white than mine. The internet is a wild place with so much easy access to send and spread hateful messages. Even for us adults who have endured bullying as kids, this is new ground. We didn’t have to deal with this back then. Cyber bullying is real. Anonymous hate mail is real. Unnecessarily mean and negative comments left on blogs, twitter and websites are real (even if I can let it bounce off, it’s still annoying as hell). It’s the coward’s way to make yourself feel better by cutting other people down and it’s so easy to do anonymously on the internet. The internet can’t continue to be a place without consequences.

As a parent of newly school aged children, stories of bullying scare me. I read the news, think about the uphill battles of normal childhood that the girls will face and It makes me really nervous and afraid for the future and of the inevitable that’s to come. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, white, black, asian, hispanic, skinny, fat, poor…I think every kid gets bullied and teased at least once in their life. I think most people can relate to some degree and remember what it feels like. And for those who have lived charmed lives and have managed to escape it, you need to read this first hand account. Everyone should read Bradford’s story. Then maybe we can all begin to understand just how serious bullying can be.

I can’t relate to the kind of bullying that Bradford endured during his childhood and early adult years at all, but I think maybe my brother can. I don’t know if my brother had suicidal thoughts then because I was already out of the house and in college back when all this was going on. It seemed like I’d hear stories all the time of him getting picked on at the bus stop, at the basketball courts, going and coming home from school at Stuyvesant – a grueling 1.5 hour commute on bus and subway each way – just because of his race. And it wasn’t always the African American kids who would physically attack him and call him names, he’d get beaten up by his own race too. I remember being told by my mom that the doctor pulled her aside after a physical one day because he wanted to know if he was being abused at home. Apparently he had long marks on his back, scars from being whipped by a Korean gang. The heartbreaking thing is that he never told anyone until that day. Racial tensions between African Americans and Asians were pretty high when we were kids in NYC, but I think I escaped the brunt of it because I was a girl and I went to a Catholic high school closer to home.

My experience with teasing and bullying was more typical. My bully was a girl named April, a tall girl who was pretty tough and wore flared jeans and baseball jerseys, who followed and taunted me every day walking home from school because I was the new kid when we moved when I was 9. I mean it’s funny…we were only 9 or 10 which seems so young to be so bad ass, but yeah…she was super intimidating. At some point, the bullying stopped after I wasn’t so new to the school anymore and I found myself socially entrenched with a group of girls who turned against this one girl in 4th grade. We had a class-wide hate club for her. It was mean. I know it was, and the only thing that absolved us from being total douche bags was that the class eventually forgot what the club was for and she later joined her own hate club. Ironically, she later became my best friend in high school.

Other than the shout outs of “chink” and other racially insensitive jokes and stupid name calling that seemed to be the norm back then if you were Asian in the 70s and 80s, I managed to avoid the worst of childhood bullying, but I have a slightly different story. I lived in constant fear of it. The fear of being taunted for me, was almost as emotionally debilitating as being picked on itself. I had a secret that I desperately guarded from the time I was 12 to about the first half of my junior year in high school. I had scoliosis and wore this ugly back brace for 5 years. 5 years, 23 hours a day, every single day. I slept in this thing, this painful, plastic straight jacket thing, and I went to school in it. I even had to change for gym class with it on, a class period that filled me with much stress and dread. Somehow, through the miracle of strategic dressing and lots of layers, I think I managed to fool everyone. Or at least I managed to fool myself into thinking that nobody noticed that I was wearing a weird, hard plastic brace underneath my clothes. I don’t really know if anyone knew or not, but I lived in constant fear of being touched, of being brushed against, or pushed accidentally to discover that if you were to touch me, you wouldn’t feel soft flesh, but you’d feel cold hard plastic. I was constantly afraid of being exposed in front of all my classmates for being a freak. When you’re a kid you don’t want to be a freak (I mean, there is goth freak, but not this kind of frankenstein freak). It was really stressful to be always on guard, to grow eyes in the back of your head to make sure that the kid sitting behind you in class didn’t reach out to pat you in the back, discover the plastic brace, start rumors and humiliate you in front of the whole class.

I think about all these things as a parent now, about how this most likely contributed to depression and eating disorders in my teenage years and I wonder what I can do to spare this for my girls. I see the mean girl thing happening in school already. It starts early, as early as kindergarten as we found out last year, and it makes me wish the girls had Wonder Twins type super powers to deflect all the bad stuff. But they don’t and they are just kids, so I’m left wondering what we as parents can do to build a solid foundation of confidence and good self esteem to help our kids when they are out in the world to defend themselves without us. This is the part of parenting that I’m not sure how to do yet. I don’t want them to be teased by bullies and mean girls, but I don’t want to raise mean girls either. I know that the news and all these celebrity PSAs are bringing more awareness to the issue, but are they really helping? What more can we do? How will I know that the girls will come to me when they need help?

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  • neta October 12, 2010 at 9:41 am

    from my experiance- the best thing is to raise them to be confident with a very postive image of themselves.
    my smallest kid. a boy, was bullied all thru grade school because of pure jelously. he’s gifted, he’s a great athlete, and he’s cute-this didn’t sit well with a few of the boys, and unfortunatly ( or not ) he’s also very sensetive, so he took to heart, and naturally that just made them repeat it more…but thru the whole time, he had a very strong home behind, and very good friends who loved him for being him. it will stick with him as a bad memory, and of course I wish he didn’t have to go thru it, but I am sure in the years to come it will diminish.

  • bonnie tsang October 12, 2010 at 10:03 am

    I agree about raising our kids to be confident. It’s also important to let them know we, as parents, are their friends as well, so that they feel comfortable telling us what goes on in school.

  • Pancakes For Recess October 12, 2010 at 10:07 am

    Very compelling post, Jenna. You raise some very critical questions. Not sure what the answer is but I really do think it starts with education. For me, bullies were rampant but the term “bully” was virtually non-existent when I was growing up. Now, we go to great lengths to educate kids on what bullying looks like, sounds like, feels like, why bullies engage in such behaviour and what we, as socially responsible citizens can do about it. It’s no magic pill, but it’s definitely a start.

  • sally October 12, 2010 at 10:10 am

    jenna, thank you for this thoughtful and honest post. i share many of the same concerns. although i feel like i cannot control whether they get bullied my husband and i try our best to cultivate empathy and kindness in our boys. we talk a lot at the end of each day about what happened at school + their day. and i’m hoping by starting early they will be more likely to openly communicate with us as they as they older. parenting is the best but most difficult job for sure. xoxo.

  • Anna @ D16 October 12, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Wonderful post, Jenna, thank you.

    It’s only in the last 10 years or so that I’ve started to realize how much painstaking effort I made to protect myself from bullying (not that anyone called it that back then, as another commenter noted) when I was a kid. You wrote that “there is goth freak and that is ok”, and I know what you meant, but as one of the “goth freaks”, I feel compelled to speak up on behalf of those kids who wound up altering their physical appearance and dressing in an “unapproachable” way in order to hide the aspects of themselves that might have been targets for torment. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I see now that by giving people something to make fun of that I chose myself (hair color, clothing/fashion, musical taste, etc.), I was taking away their desire to target me for the things I couldn’t change (being Jewish, being poor, having a large family, having a “weird” name, having divorced parents, having parents without conventional jobs, and so on and so forth). I was a target from the first day of kindergarten. Kids pick up on differences so early on.

    Avoiding being bullied is exhausting, as you said. The constant fear of being ridiculed is something that has never left me. I still carry this around with me, and it affects my ability to have lasting friendships and and have normal social interaction—I am constantly afraid of being “found out”. I still pile on the layers of protection, they just look different now.

  • gretchen October 12, 2010 at 10:26 am

    i do remember those kindergarten and first grade girl bullies in my daughter’s classes, and i am happy to say their power did not last and by fourth grade they had assimilated and become more positive. there is a lot of information out there about what bullying is, but not enough information about how to effectively combat it. my children are teens now, and it’s been an issue some years. i have always instructed them to choose their friends well, choose positive kids who have goals at school. i find schools are not as helpful as they could be, but after repeated instances, will step in. truthfully, avoidance of mean kids is an important skill. it does exist. and these are all teaching moments. good luck to you and your girls.

  • Jesse October 12, 2010 at 10:56 am

    As an overweight kid, I spent years being called “the beached whale”, and sitting alone at lunch, and on the bus, with no friends and a class full of enemies. It scarred me, and I developed an eating disorder as a teen to overcompensate and try and fit in. And I didn’t fit in even then. And you know what? I survived. Most of us do. Its horrific that some kids and teens feel they have no options other than suicide, but for most of us bullying is a trial that we endure and survive. It’s wrong and its cruel, but its reality, it always has been. My dorky husband had his head flushed in the toilets by the jocks for kicks. Bigger (literally and socially), meaner, dumber kids will always pick on smaller, kinder, smarter kids. If your kids feel like they have a safety net at home, if they feel loved and supported by their family, they’ll make it through. It might not be easy, but who said life was easy anyway?

  • Hye Son October 12, 2010 at 11:04 am

    My son is in middle school and I am thankful that he confides in me. He’s been caught off guard with mean comments and then doesn’t know how to respond. We’ve practiced various scenarios and what he should say in return or whom to turn to when the need arises. We practice often and he should and has helped others when he can. Most importantly, we all think our kids will be the victim and not the bully but I can attest that I have seen good kids say some mean things including my own son and they don’t recognize themselves as being the bully because bullies are other mean kids. That should definitely be part of any bully conversation.

  • Annie October 12, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Jenna thank you for sharing and putting out some amazing questions.
    how to answer? … no clue, as a parent i want to protect my kids and someone hurting their feelings is the worst thing that can happen. Confidence is all I can give them. Also the knowledge to judge good behavior against bad…. and that not everyone thinks and acts the same.
    to be compassionate.

    We have a pretty open house, most of my friends and family members are gay, we are a mixed couple and It’s hard to denied my roots, where I grew up and where I come from…
    the kids see it all as the most normal, common thing. Is the time when some questions it that scares me the most…

  • sylvï October 12, 2010 at 11:44 am

    oh, this is such a tough issue. bullying and meanness can take so many forms, and also we all deal with it in our own ways. i was the skinny, short girl and went on to have glasses and braces, and being a grungy hippy goth type freak teen. in a small town. but i had good friends. and from early on had learned to ignore and despise the jerks, as well as feel sorry for some. but i know it could have been so much worse.

    if i had kids, i would talk to them about bullying, maybe contemplate the aspect of how mean people can be weak and scared on the inside, and think up ways to respond. anything to take the power from the bully. they want to see you hurt, so don’t give them that pleasure. it’s hard but can hinder some of it early on.

    as for physical violence, i never had much of that, but my beating bully from first grade became a best buddy for years, not always a very good friend, but still. eventually, i found better ones, even though we still are in good terms. it helps that i know where it all stemmed from, and don’t hold a grudge. but nowadays it just seems crazy, what kids do to each other. it is a different era all right.

    i agree with others on that the best thing to do is to build the kids’ confidence and sense of self, so when someone tries to put them down, they won’t hear a word of it. and if they do get down about it, hear them out and never betray that trust so they’ll always come to you for help. ask them straight out, from time to time, if there is someone mean or if they’ve seen bullying. and the hardest thing of all, accept that battle scars are part of life, and you can’t fight those battles for them. i know how lame that sounds, though.

    i bet the girls will one day ask you, without sparing words, to stop humiliating them in public. 😀 and they will hate you for this blog in the awkward teens, and love it in their twenties, if they can read it. maybe you could keep a private blog about your daughters where you can be more specific and revealing about their precious days of becoming who they are?

  • deebo October 12, 2010 at 11:48 am

    edify them every single day of who they are, how wonderful they were made to be, that theyre beautiful.. everything you feel in your heart about them. be sincere. talk to them about your own stories and faults and how you conquered them, even at their young age. no better time to start.

  • Alyssa October 12, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    I was bullied for years until I joined up with the mean girls myself in seventh grade, in the hopes of finally having “friends”. Of course, they were never my real friends, but I didn’t realize it at the time. And for a long time after that, I carried around a deep sense of shame and guilt just knowing how much I hurt other people – it took years to resolve. If I can teach my kids anything it is that it is always better to be nice.

  • Carol October 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    I loathe bullying, I experienced it for a few years during my teens. It was hell. My son is now experiencing some cruel comments at school which are really upsetting for him (other children calling him fatty). The teacher has been very good working with me on how to stamp this out.

  • Lauren October 12, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    It’s almost impossible to make a call for either the sake of the bullied or the bully(ies) without being judgmental. As one who is completely empathetic to bullied kids, having been severly bullied during middle school (completed by an abusive dad), I can make the judgment that bullying is not a reason to take one’s own life. While there is no justification for bullying, each person makes the choice in how to react when either a. being bullied or b. watching someone else being bullied. I will now be better equipped to tell kids how to handle bullying, and it built my character. I have the thickest skin and am afraid of no one. There was a moment where I considered suicide, but I instead decided to become a fighter (not literally) and show up my peers and my own father by working hard in school to become more successful than they.

  • Jenna October 12, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Anna: your comment is so right on and thank you for pointing that out and giving your perspective on it. I don’t think I articulated well what I wanted to say. I also think that my experience being a “goth freak” may have been different from yours, though I don’t know for sure. In my high school, being an arty goth didn’t necessarily make you an outcast or really all that different from a lot of kids in school. In a way, I dyed and cut my hair and dressed the way I did so I could fit in…but in a similar realization, I realize that maybe it was a way to deflect all the things that I could have been picked on.

  • Jessa October 12, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    jenna, I thought your post was ariculated very well. My husband and I come from backgrounds of quite extreme bullying and we are fearful for our children. I’m constantly trying to balance my over protective instincts and my desire to help facilitate a healthy growth in confidence and independence. Cyberbullying is something I hadn’t given much thought about. I always appreciate your honesty and insight.

  • msim October 12, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    jenna, i love reading your blog. i don’t think you realize how much you touch people by sharing your thoughts and life with the blogosphere.

    i hope your children will never experience bullying and grow up to be confident and brave. they have a loving, protective mama and that will take them far.

  • Renita October 12, 2010 at 6:42 pm

    Life – The School of Hard Knocks … I practiced avoidance, some days were better than others.

  • Fiona October 12, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    The education system has definitely copped on to how harmful bullying is, and schools have a duty of care to protect children from bullying. It happens all the time with my kids and no more or less than with the others in their classes I’m sure. I’ve found the key is to get in there early, don’t wait till your child is really unhappy before getting involved. You are your child’s best advocate. Talk to the teacher and remember teachers aren’t psychic, they can miss the subtle stuff. I’ve never known it not to get resolved really quickly. Also if your child is not so forthcoming with you, ‘Who did you play with today?’ gets more revealing answers than ‘How was school?’. Great post.

  • C October 12, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    Home schooling can be an answer but tedious… if bullying at school is so bad….

    bullying just doesn’t happen at school… but at work places where the old ones get jealous of the younger ones…earning more, having more free time, no family to take care of, etc…

  • brenda October 12, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    Oh, the books I could write about my childhood of verbal, emotional and physical torture. 🙂 To this day, I have no idea why some boy hauled off and whacked me in the face with a basketball in 1st grade (but I sure had a shiner). Or why another boy knocked me out cold with a rock in jr high. Or why those girls punched me in the arms until I would cry (never taking very long), taunting “crybaby.” Oh, right, because I was different and they could.

    I never talked about my daily torture with my parents. They sometimes had a glimmer, but to this day, don’t really believe me (“if it was really that bad, you would have said something then”). I didn’t tell anybody. I had two best friends, one of whom would flip and be the worst bully of the bunch. So who am I going to talk with? I just dealt with it.

    It seems so much worse for kids today. Hug and love your girls every day. Ask them lots of questions about their day. Make sure they trust you enough to share everything. Raise them with strength, self confidence, self esteem and courage – and they’ll do great.

  • SY October 12, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    We are lucky enough to go to a school that integrates a curriculum designed to boost the social and emotional development of children. Bullying isn’t tolerated at our school and it shouldn’t be at any other school. With our new program, children are learning to deal with bullies and how to not become one. Thank you Jenna for opening this forum, your posts are always thoughtful and are very much appreciated at least in our house 🙂

  • ChantaleP October 12, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    I think this is every parents fear and nightmare. I read Bradford’s story, can’t believe he went through that torture and reading about your brother, felt so horrible it happened to him too. I think as kids we all went through some form of it and gave some out as well. It was really heart aching to read about your fear of being caught out wearing that brace. I can’t imagine what you went through.. It’s hard to figure this one out so thank you Jenna for opening up the discussion.

  • elaineganmaclaine October 13, 2010 at 12:42 am

    Great read!
    Though I very much love reading about your daughters, I agree if you wrote less about them, or minimal photo posts of them growing up, for obvious privacy and protection reasons.

    I was a soft-hearted kid back in school, and was always picked on (due to my cold upbringing at home), nothing physical but being ignored by groups of girls, given nasty hatred stares… That scarred me, i developed depression gradually.

    But of course things got better as i got into high school/ college.

    Like most kids, everyone has their own episodes.

  • RebeccaNYC October 13, 2010 at 12:58 am

    What a great post. Thank you. I was bullied as a child, and I don’t know if I ever really got over it. What a number it did on my self esteem. Of course back then (40+ years ago!) bullying was considered a normal part of growing up. Now, in my adult life, I find bullying in my workplace, and even though I have the skills to handle it, it is just as hurtful and bewildering as when I was a child. Humans are strange beings.

  • MAry October 13, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Jenna –

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful soul, and bringing together these beautiful, thoughtful voices. We can learn so much from each other!

    You are so thoughtful, and a strong communicator, that your girls are lucky — They will be able to have your support, a stong sense of self, and honest dialogue, their whole lives. From your pictures, one can see you have exposed them to MANY beautiful, interesting things, and it seems that you are living in a diverse, family friendly environment that is inclusive. Those are also wonderful gifts to help them blossom and be strong enough to withstand the awful bullying culture.

    I have just decided to forego the F/T corporate job search to spend time with my kids, and I have been reading (almost daily) Discipline Without DIstress in order to have a parenting style that builds my kids self-esteem, makes home a safe haven, and learn about childhood development (why are they doing x, y, z!?!?!). It’s very hard, as you know! Just when I think I have been making too many mistakes, my son will hug me and say, “I love you to the moon and back,” or “awww, that is so sweet of you.” And, I’m recharged! 🙂

    I was the “smart” kid, pressured to get straight As by my parents, in schools where it was NOT cool to be smart. Add to that my mother’s penchant for telling me she was a nerd, and insecure, so that’s normal. Oh, and my Dad told me I would look better with shorter hair. NOT cool. I had the WORST haircut Freshman year, and the ugliest glasses (did not have money for “fashion). All the girls had their skirts hemmed shorter, but not me. I could go on.

    I asked to go to different schools than they chose at each phase of education, where I thought I would fit in, but they still wanted their part. Cath. schools. Let’s just say that I have an overdeveloped sense of guilt, and I truly believed that I would go to hell for certain things.

    Much happier now, and still a work in progress. Fortunately, have not run into any bullies in MN social circles to date. (Here 5 years)

    Best wishes to all of you wanting the best for their precious kids!

  • rita October 13, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    i’m disappointed that we haven’t been able to teach our children to appreciate the differences in all of us. what a wonderful thing that you are different from me, had a different family, ate different food, lived in different places, are talented in areas that i am not, have a different faith….. i don’t have answers and i don’t understand how schools/teachers can not see these problems before they become ugly.

  • eireann October 14, 2010 at 4:22 am

    I was the kid with the name the teacher couldn’t pronounce and no one could spell, every single first day of class from Kindergarten through 12th grade. And we changed schools 3 times, too, and my (weird, liberal, liberation-theology, in-house food co-op having) family background meant that I always stuck out–my uniforms were secondhand, my mom didn’t do the Good Mom PTA stuff or toe the orthodox lines. And that fed right down through the kids, so I got the normal bullying for being weird on my own AND the trickle-down effect of their families being unsettled by ours. I remember coming home in tears in 6th grade because NO ONE in my class liked me or would be my friend and several girls were actively cruel. And my mom sat me on the counter and said, “I know you can’t understand this now, and I know it is BAD right now. But one day it WILL be better, and you won’t care about those kids. It won’t matter to you. That doesn’t make now any easier. But it will get better.” That in tandem with an extremely supportive and creative and loving family life (I have three brothers and my parents, and we did have a pretty amazing, imaginative, full childhood) and my own love of school are probably what got me through. My parents made sure to show and tell us how good and special and well-loved we were. A kind of a shield when we went out in the world.

    Thanks for this post, and hi there.

  • Sharon October 14, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Bullying hurts my feelings. Not literally, but because it stems from an intolerance of difference. Thankfully, my parents raised me to be tolerant, but they also talked with my sister and I about our curiosities and gave us a safe place to be ourselves. That’s important because unfortunately the world can be a cruel place for no good reason. When I see pics of your girls, it reminds me of my sister and I. We were best friends (still are) and felt safe together. I’m the baby, so the few times I was teased, or I had my feelings hurt at the hands of a bully, I would run and grab my sister and she would “handle” it for me. I had NO problems saying someone hurt my feelings, tattle tale stigma, be damned…I was not about to let it go down like that.

    You can’t protect your girls from every bully in the world, but you can teach them to be tolerant, to be confident in who they are, to look out for each other, to feel safe coming to you and your husband, and to speak up!!!

  • Chuzai Living October 18, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    I didn’t realize how serious bullying can be in the U.S. I grew up in a country where the suicide rate is the second highest in the world (Japan). I grew up hearing news about bullying in middle and high schools in Japan and it’s nothing different from what you described. One difference I see is that we have uniforms in Japan in most public schools after middle school and that doesn’t allow kids to look differently from one another. I do worry about my kids being in school. My older one just started kinder, so she has a long way to go. Kaho

  • annie October 24, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Just noodling around the interwaves on a lovely sunny afternoon in England, found your blog. I’m a primary (elementary) school teacher in the UK, mother of two teenagers but teaching kids from 7-11. Bullying goes on less than you might think, looking at the papers and news, but another teacher gave me a good definition: it’s when name-calling, fighting etc goes on for a prolonged period – all kids fall out from time to time but equally often make up very quickly with the minimum of intervention. Keep talking to your kids, give them a bit of a bracing upbringing (not too special, not too wonderful, not too delicate) and they will make it through. Mine did, yours will. Also – talk to teachers as soon as you can if you are worried. We don’t like unhappiness either. Hope this helps. Enjoy the mellow weather!

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