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Katie’s Musings: Bullying

Cassie Williams
December 14 2017

Let’s talk about bullying, shall we?

It’s been in the news this week.  You can Google #standwithkeaton if you’re curious, but here’s the nutshell version:  a young boy is bullied in school, his mom posts a video of him talking about it, and it immediately goes viral.  Celebrities reach out, he’s on Good Morning America, it starts a national conversation on bullying, etc.

Of course this is the year 2017 and we can’t seem to have nice things, so of course it comes out that his mom MIGHT be a confederate flag waving racist and the boys who were bullying him MIGHT have been retaliating because he called them a derogatory term, and it MIGHT have all been exploitative ….

But BULLYING.  I want to talk about bullying.  Because we need to, because kids are dying, and because I think the aftermath of the Keaton incident maybe illustrates the point I initially wanted to make anyway.

See, I have it on good authority that kids do feel like bullying has gotten worse over the past few years.  And I don’t think that’s an accident.  The accepted scapegoat in this instance is usually SOCIAL MEDIA.  Kids are depressed and suffering and dying because the Internet has made bullying so easy and so commonplace.  The accepted narrative is that kids can be mean and they’ve always been mean, but the internet makes it easier to be mean.  And ok, sure, this is probably partly true.  Bullying also has to do with other factors – bullying kids have often been bullied themselves, or when kids are going through difficult things they can lash out at others to take the attention off themselves, etc, and each case is different.  But I must admit to thinking it is too easy.  Focuses on the aspects of society we’ve weaponized and not so much why they’ve been weaponized in the first place.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the weaponization that we as a society do over the past few weeks.  (Braving the Wilderness.  Brené Brown.  Read it!) I had a conversation with some Starbucks workers about the holiday cups that caused such a tizzy last year.  Those kind baristas – baristresses? –  were regularly verbally assaulted because of those coffee cups.  COFFEE CUPS.  Because those cups were supposed to be CHRISTMAS cups, not HOLIDAY cups, and there’s a war on Christmas, gosh darn it.  Coffee cups were weaponized to assert authority.  Christmas has been weaponized to assert authority.

And we wonder why bullying is on the rise?   When weaponization of group belonging is how we spend our days?  When we dehumanize those we don’t agree with and do what we can to invalidate their experience?  When we decide the labels of “liberal” and “conservative” or whatever are the only thing we need to know about a person to determine their worth?

And moreover… what do we expect from our children when this weaponized belonging is what they are seeing in the world and at home and on the internet every single day?  The side doesn’t matter.  The impetus does.

I firmly believe that if we are serious about combating bullying, it has to start with us.  Adults.  Those who interact with children, but also just in general.  You see, most of the time, kids behave in ways that are modeled for them.  It comes back to the concept of intended message vs. received message.  Example:  a child is with a trusted adult.  The adult goes on at length about the idiocy of another individual or public figure.  The intended message is, “I really want you to be a good person and to understand right from wrong, so I’m going to impart my knowledge and perspective to you to make that happen.”

But the received message is, “It is perfectly fine and acceptable to belittle a person based on a very few aspects of their being.”  We find ourselves in a very divided nation at present, and while kids might not understand all the complexities of our political and social system, they certainly understand the basic perceptions that all the divisions are rooted in, and as they are learning who and what they’re supposed to be, they will latch onto whatever we give them.

Put another way, how do we teach kids not to bully when they’re seeing a lot bullying behavior from the adults they’re supposed to model?  How do talk to them about that, and more importantly, what unintended messages and behaviors might we be showing to them without even realizing it?

“Kids can be mean and the internet is BAD” might be sort of true, but it is also way too easy an answer.

Instead we should ask a question.  “How have we addressed or modeled weaponized belonging behavior for our kids?”  And go on from there.