Jennifer Kolari: 13 To Life


Bullying or the Initiations of Life?

I took my teenage children to see the documentary, “Bully." In the USA, much discussion ensued about whether or not kids under the age of eighteen should be allowed to see a film that depicts actual bully violence, uses foul language and is upsetting to behold.  In Canada, common sense seems to have prevailed although at the screening we attended, the audience was comprised of primarily adults.  Perhaps, this will change if and when the film goes into wide release.  I hope so. While not comprehensive, this film goes a long way towards viscerally demonstrating exactly what bullying looks like and how it often tragically progresses—much the same way movies showing black lungs helped remove the glamour of smoking a few decades ago. Each family should be able to decide for themselves whether or not their kids should see the movie. I wouldn’t recommend it for kids under ten however—not so much due to content, but because younger kids are not used to slower moving films and may become fidgety.

Bullying is an ongoing crisis that has only escalated through the burgeoning use of electronics.  In the last decade, both parents and children have been encouraged to be vigilant and act if they see signs of bullying.  One of my concerns, however, is that many people have become over-fearful and watchful; when the boy cries wolf and the townsfolk keep running, he will continue to act out to the detriment of his own integrity, growth and development.

If a kid comes home and tells his parents that somebody in the playground grabbed the baseball cap off his head and threw it on the ground, is it reasonable for the parents to call the school and demand that the offending hat-grabber be prosecuted? This may not  be the action of a bully, but the hijinks of an immature schoolmate.  It’s annoying.  It’s upsetting.  But, may not be a case of bullying.

Bullying is defined as aggressive behaviour, verbal, physical or coercive, repeatedly directed towards specific victims.  Bullies use force to make weaker people do their bidding.  A gang is an example of “group bully.” A repeated character assassination on-line is an example of internet bullying. Continual poundings or threat of same on the playground is an example of physical bullying. Yes, teachers, children and parents must be aware of these actions and prepared to take their own should they observe or be subjects of bullying, but it is equally important that we be able to make the distinction between true bullying and teasing.

My parents always taught me to stick up for myself.  They never told me not to come to them—in fact, they said that if anyone ever physically hurt me or threatened me, I should tell them immediately. Sometimes, I asked for advice on how to deal with a situation which they immediately provided in a “family meeting.” I had my share of unhappy moments, self-doubt, sadness, revenge fantasies, but I dealt with them and I dealt with the perpetrators using problem-solving skills I largely developed through trial and error. I came across an anonymous quote recently that reads, “The most honourable revenge is the one not taken.” How true, but when you’re a kid—how difficult. 

It seems that because the awareness around bullying has become so much more prevalent these days, a growing number of hovering parents are not allowing their children to problem solve on their own or even brainstorm as a family. Parents are leaping in, running interference, calling schools more often to complain, telling their kids, “don’t worry, it’ll be okay.  I’ll deal with it.”  While this desire to protect and fix comes from a place of love and concern, it can be a real detriment to a child’s social competence.

Kids need to learn independence throughout childhood so that it doesn’t feel like a trait suddenly expected of them when they turn eighteen.  As painful as it is for parents to see their children go through the tribulations of childhood, it is essential to allow them to go through them in the driver’s seat with no extra brake pedal on the instructor’s side.  Kids who are encouraged to solve their own social problems will become more resilient adults with much greater self-esteem—something they will all need when embarking in the adult world.  Knowing that you are there for them and will step in when true bullying occurs is important but Stepping in for them all the time actually steps on them, squashing their belief that they possess enough personal power to deal with any obstacles. Maybe this is why so many young adults in their twenties are floundering, suffering from anxiety and low self-regard.

That said, if a child is repeatedly attacked verbally or physically by anyone, zero tolerance for bullying must prevailed.  It is cool to tell; it could also save a life.