Is Bullying a Childhood Disease?

Or: The Upside of the Gun Epidemic.

We are, suddenly, hearing a whole lot about bullying in schools. Schools are making regulations against it. Local governments are even passing laws against it. A generation ago, it was ignored the same way measles and mumps were ignored, as a stage most children had to get through, which most of them would survive more or less undamaged. These days, of course, we don’t ignore measles either. In both instances, it is mostly because we have finally noticed that bullying, and measles and mumps, can be deadly, or at least seriously disabling. I’m not quite sure what brought the grave consequences of “childhood diseases” to our attention, but I’m pretty sure what did the job for school bullying—guns. As long as the victims of bullying suffered in silence and the perpetrators were given the protective cover of “boys will be boys,” adults didn’t have to take notice. But when both bullies and victims turned up in school with guns, the jig was up, the cover was blown, and the cat was out of the bag.

We are all acquainted with the basic pattern. A kid will be targeted for being fat, or skinny, or dumb, or smart, or sensitive. His classmates will vandalize his property, beat him up, steal his lunch money, or stuff him into lockers on a regular basis. The kid will seek help from the teachers, who will generally tell him that “you will have to learn to solve your own problems,” or will tell all the students that “all of you will have to learn to resolve your own differences,” as if the problem were merely a disagreement about whether Eminem or Fifty Cent is the better performer. If the pattern continues, all the kids involved, both victims and perpetrators, may be punished, with majestic impartiality, for “fighting.” Sometimes the punishment will involve victim and perps being placed in detention in the same room.

At some point, some adult, either teacher, “counselor”, or parent, will tell the victim “if you just don’t react to what they’re doing, they’ll stop. They only do it because you show them how much it hurts.” This tells the victim two things: (1) that the bullies aren’t picking on him out of ignorance (no matter what Socrates says), they really want to hurt him; and (2) what they’re doing is normal and natural; he’s the one with the problem.

A more up-to-date approach currently being tried in some schools is the teaching of “victim empathy,” or “how would you feel if somebody did that to you?” This at least has the merit of recognizing that it is the bully who has, and is, the problem. But it ignores one of the more remarkable findings of social scientists who study bullying, which is that a large proportion of the victims also engage in bullying behavior themselves, and vice versa. So they already know exactly how it feels when somebody does it to them. In fact, that may be why they do it—revenge, or inoculation, or trying to get in with the perp crowd for their own safety.

But at some point in this pattern somebody—apparently it can be either the victim or the bully—will show up at school with a gun and blow away several teachers and classmates. Then we start to deplore violence in our schools.

Is bullying universal, among all children and adolescents? We don’t know. We do know it isn’t restricted to 20th- and 21st-century North America. It turned up in Victorian England, and is widespread in Japan.

The use of laws and regulations to deal with bullying seems excessive to most of us, accustomed as we are to regard anything done by or to children as insignificant. But, ultimately, we have been persuaded by the introduction of guns into the equation that this stuff is more serious than it looks. Reluctantly, we are willing to “criminalize” what is still viewed as more or less normal juvenile behavior. What we have not yet been willing to recognize is that most of it would already be criminal, if the victim were an adult. Beating him up? That’s assault and battery. So is stuffing him into a locker. Stealing his lunch money? Petty larceny. Vandalizing his property—that’s criminal damage to property. Even the less physical kind of bullying typically engaged in by girls is usually prosecutable as defamation, harassment, cyber-harassment, stalking, and invasion of privacy. And would have been, long since, if the victim were not a child.

We really have viewed bullying between children as a kind of childhood disease which can confer immunity against the same kind of problem among adults. “Let him learn how to handle it now, while the stakes are low,” we sometimes figure. “Then he’ll be able to handle the Boss from Hell, or the Drill Sergeant.” Unfortunately, like measles, bullying in childhood can kill or disable. And, like measles, bullying among adults can also be deadly. (See the literature on workplace bullying for more data.)

Are laws the best way to solve this problem? Probably not, especially in the US where we tend to ignore most of the laws against physical battery and assault, except those protecting specifically vulnerable populations like women, children, people with disabilities, police officers, and ethnic minorities. We really haven’t internalized the laws against beating up on “people in general,” which is why laws against domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and so on, have had to be imposed in the first place. And probably why so many of us—especially those not protected by those particularized laws, like adult white males–feel it necessary to carry firearms.

I suspect, though I know of absolutely no data to support this, that the most effective way to teach our young physical self-restraint is something like the ethical codes imposed in classical Greece and Rome, the Samurai in Japan, and the knightly orders in the Middle Ages: a code that says “We are the _________________ (choose your preferred highly-regarded identity). So we don’t ______________________________(choose your preferred nasty behavior.)” Something like the West Point honor code, although that has obvious drawbacks. (Probably they all do. If we are going to invent one, we should be prepared to revise and tweak it continually.) Something that may even encourage the carrying of arms, so long as it also discourages using them. (I’m thinking here of my grandfather the Colonel, who taught all of his children to clean, load, and shoot a gun, and also taught them “you don’t pick up a gun unless you intend to shoot, and you don’t shoot unless you intend to kill.”)

But above all, it would require adults, including highly visible adults, to lead by example. We don’t want the kids to think that as soon as they’re grown up, they can beat up on people as much as they like. There are plenty of role models out there, even among our regularly armed citizens, such as police officers and soldiers. But the cops and soldiers who themselves regularly engage in bullying would need to be placed under better control. If we want to keep kids from shooting up their schools, we will need to start with the rest of us. And if we are serious about telling them “violence is not the answer,” we will probably need to come up with a better question than “How can I get what I want, when I want it?”



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