I was at my sons Karate practice when another parent handed me his phone. "Can you believe this?" he asked. On his phone was an article about an 8th grade girl that committed suicide. It was a few towns over where we lived. "Ugh" I said. "It's just not right. Girls 10-14 are the fastest growing group at risk for suicide". We both grew quiet, watching our kids practice against each other. My son, 7. His daughter, 8. As I watched my son practice self defense, I wondered about that girl and the article about her suicide. Her mother said she was bullied.
I then tried googling the story on my phone. The results horrified me. There must have been half a dozen stories of middle and high school kids committing suicide just on the first google page - and that was in neighboring towns. But I didn't find this one. It didn't make the news. It was only in a Facebook post of a family friend.
She was not allowed to Halloween parties. Her peers made excuses, told her nothing was going on and then posted pictures on Instagram. All this would be sad for anyone, let alone a teenage girl going through some of the most dramatic physical, hormonal and mental changes a human being can be asked to undertake. The result was devastating.
"Kids are assholes" I thought to myself. "Fucking assholes".
Then a thought crossed my mind - a realization. I was that asshole kid once. I bullied kids - girls, boys, whoever. Anyone who was different than me. I mean, if you told any of my friends or colleagues now they wouldn't believe you. In fact none of my friends did when I first told them. But I was a little shit growing up, especially in Junior High.
I still remember the girls name - Yelena. She had the same name as my first girlfriend. She had blond hair and brown eyes. She was new to class, her parents having recently immigrated from Odessa. She would sometimes pick her nose in class. I decided, along with a friend, that this was gross. Whenever she looked at me I would make a face. I would snarl at her. I would point and laugh and do things bullies do. I didn't let her sit next to me at lunch. I made fun of her whenever I could. Like I said, I was generally a dick. My teachers saw it a few times, told me to cut it out. One time they told me it was because I liked her. But that was generally the extent of my punishment.
It wasn't the only time I bullied someone.
Several years later, in high school I went on to bully a kid that was actually my friend. Or so he thought. He was a big kid, a little geeky but then again so was I. Our similarity didn't stop be from turning on him one day when another friend of mine picked a fight with him. We both went on to beat him up. I would go on to make fun of him after that, relentlessly. Believe it or not, we eventually made up. It was more a testimony of his moral character than mine. But in the meantime, I was, once again, an asshole bully.
I'd like to think two instances didn't define me or the experience of my childhood. I had other friends that weren't assholes. They even thought of me as a good guy. We hung out, did things for each other and occasionally got into trouble. But to the kids I bullied my actions DID define me.
After high school I began to feel bad about those times. Knowing what I know now I understand how wrong that was, and precisely the types of consequences it can result in. I'm not talking about the potential punishments for me like suspension from school. I'm talking about consequences for those two kids I bullied. The pain and feelings of isolation I caused. Feelings that likely increased their risk for suicide. Neither killed them selves, but if they were somehow predisposed to such feelings, my actions definitely didn't help.
So what gives? What changed?
Well for one thing my parents. They were not very involved in my Junior High School studies. We just came to the US and they were working their asses off to make sure we were able to not only pay rent, but eventually move out of our roach infested apartment. My brother once had to go to parent teacher night because they just couldn't make it. Eventually they were able to be involved, but there was a language and culture barrier they didn't understand. I remember my dad driving away from school one time. I yelled "fuck you" to some poor old lady (Jesus Christ I really WAS a fucking shit).
My dad yelled at me. He told me that was wrong. He said everyone knew those words, including the President of the United States. But that smart, sophisticated people knew better not to use them (so much for the President argument now). Whenever my parents caught me, they corrected me. Eventually, I stopped. I don't know if it was their intervention, or the fact that I "grew out of it". Either way it was definitely NOT the person I wanted to be.
So what am I trying to say?
It's easy to be outraged by bullying. But it's harder to look inward and try to understand when/if you've hurt others and why. This is important, because "stop it" will only go so far. Yes, kids need to be told to stop unacceptable behavior. But kids just saying it isn't enough. These actions need to be reinforced with consequences AND with reasoning. The only way to explain reasoning, is to first understand it yourself.
In my case, I was a little shit (don't think I said that enough). Why? Because I wanted to fit in. I was an immigrant that had JUST learned the language and didn't want to stand out anymore. I didn't care if I used other kids to show that I fit in. I didn't care if they were immigrants like me or born here. I didn't understand the consequences of doing so. The consequences that those kids would face, not me. Now I do, and I was able to nip it in the bud with my own son as a result.
My son's teacher told my wife one day that he was making fun of a little girl. He was teasing her, BULLYING her. That night, before he took a bath, I looked him in the eye.
"Mom told me you bullied a little girl" I said
"Uh huh" he looked guilty.
"You shouldn't do that"
"I know dad, I'm sorry"
"Do you know why" I said
"It's not nice" he responded. My wife already spoke to him and gave him that answer.
"That's right. But there's another reason. How do you feel when I call you Big Ben, do you feel good?". It was a Nickname his Sensei made for him and had to stop using because he hated it.
"No" he responded
"So how to you think the girl feels when you make fun of her. Do you think she feels sad?"
"Yes she does. If you continue to make fun of her, she will keep feeling sad. Then she won't be able to feel happy anymore!" It was the only way I knew how to explain depression to a 7-year-old. "Do you understand?"
"So don't you EVER do that again" I said.
I'd never been so stern with him. He was punished for several days. He didn't get to watch TV, or play with his toys. But I also went on to ask him why he was punished every day, and to repeat to me what I told him was the reason. It worked. It hasn't happened again, yet. I would never have been able to do that if I didn't understand the consequences of bullying for the kids being bullied, and if I didn't reflect on my own experiences with it.
My hope is that by teaching my son, I've saved the emotions of a girl. Maybe even her life.