What is bullying?
Bullying is classified a power relationship. It is one of fear, and aggression, and violence. It is one person being marginalized by another, being subjected to their will on some level, whether that will results in theft or malevolent degradation, or just plain violence.
Bullying is a more horrific experience than you may realize.
My childhood experience with my peers is one of violence. Not necessarily as a “victim” per se, but as part of a general atmosphere. Children sought to hurt each other, and they used far more than words; they used fists and knees and baseball bats. For a teacher who sees children teasing, they may think sympathetically of the child’s feeling of isolation or their hurt self-esteem, but for a child involved a real bullying experience it is from their perspective probably closer to Stephen King’s It, in which the bully carries a knife and tries to carve his name into the fat kid’s belly.
Bullying is nothing new or special.
Part of the curse of my photographic memory is my ability to remember childhood, and I can tell you in more than 20 years nothing has really changed, and from the witness of my elders the past century has brought no progress. The internet gives additional opportunities, nothing more or less, in the same way that congregating at a mall does. Children have always sought to exert power over others; the real question is why. From my perspective it is quite obvious.
It is we who create bullies.
Recognizing the fact that behavior is learned and nobody is born to be cruel (well, perhaps some people are unable to be anything but sociopaths, but that is another debate), it is we as teachers, parents, and citizens (for lack of a better word) that have created bullies. Children witness and are subjected to unequal power relationships every day with and between the adults around them. They are coerced into attending school and forced every day and every hour to submit themselves to the power of teachers, parents and administrators. If they resist, object, or question it, they are punished. Children are the least free people in America besides those in prison (who have to deal with their own variety of bullies- the kind who violate with more than words). Is it any wonder they lash out? That they imitate the conditions to which they themselves have been subjected? Creating power over another person is a way to feel free; to feel like you are able to finally assume the role of the adults around you; that you are not completely powerless.
Prevention of bullying is almost impossible.
In order to respond to bullying as a teacher you must first witness it. Children, though we may think less of them, are not so foolish as risk being subjected to the negative possibilities of a power relationship between themselves and adults (in other words, punishment from adults) by bullying someone else in front of a teacher or administrator. They will do it in the halls, bathrooms, playground, and outside of school if they must, and it is not possible for the school to monitor a child at all times. Furthermore, children are clever enough to figure out the areas that will not be monitored.
A child doesn’t tell on a bully. They avoid it because of the inevitable reprisal that you as a teacher cannot prevent. They avoid it because they feel, and are likely correct, that you are incapable of protecting them.
Bullying is here to stay.
It is unlikely that the situations that create bullying will ever be fully resolved, at least as long as education is compulsory. The final escape for both those who bully, and those who are bullied, which is escape from the locality that creates it, will likely never be an avenue that will open to either party. The end of compulsory education, though it might go a long way toward reducing bullying and providing meaningful avenues of escape and prevention, is not likely to happen in my lifetime.
How do we save our children?
We can’t save them. We must prepare them. Children are not born equipped with the tools (physical or otherwise) to defend against violence or to commit violence, and their egos are not shod in iron and impenetrable. All you can do is build up your children enough that they don’t suffer so much from the ills of others. Create enough pride, will and self-esteem in them that they do not feel the need to bully, even in situation of being bullied, and at the same time take away the impact of that attempt at a power relationship.