Woolly Bully by
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Prompted By Bullying

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What is bullying? I struggle with the term. Maybe it’s one of those “I know it when I see it” type of things. Stopbullying.gov, an official government website (it says so!), defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. . . . Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”

When my youngest daughter was in 4th grade, she wore Crocs to school. The previous summer, 2005, we had gone to Boulder, Colorado for a family reunion, and Crocs were the new big thing there. Everyone was talking about them. We thought they were terrific – comfortable, waterproof, inexpensive – and we bought them for everyone in the family in different colors. They were not being sold in California yet, so most people here hadn’t seen them. That fall, a boy in her class started teasing her about them. He said she was wearing gumballs on her feet, or something like that. Not just once, but multiple times. We complained to the teacher, and she admonished the boy, but he didn’t stop. Then we had a meeting with the boy’s mother and the teacher. I can’t remember now if his mother got him to stop, or if we finally got Molly new shoes so that he wouldn’t be able to tease her about the Crocs any more, but one way or the other the problem went away.

Obnoxious, yes, but was it bullying? I didn’t think so. He was making fun of her, which was not okay, but there was no power imbalance (unless you think that the boys had more power than the girls, which might have been true), and it was just about her choice of shoes, not anything about her physical, mental, or emotional traits. To me that doesn’t qualify as bullying, but maybe I’m being overly technical. She now looks back at that time and says she was bullied by him.

When I was in elementary school, kids were always making fun of other kids. For wearing glasses, for having a name that could be turned into something ridiculous, for being too smart or too dumb, too skinny or too fat, they could always find something to tease someone about. I vividly remember one time when one of the girls I regularly walked home from school with asked me to take my glasses off, because she wanted to tease this other girl by calling her “four-eyes” but she couldn’t do it if she was hanging around with someone in glasses. Did I stand up for that other girl and say “don’t be mean to her”? Of course not. I took off my glasses, happy that I was not the one being teased.

So maybe all that teasing IS bullying, because it makes the recipients feel bad about themselves. That’s not in the stopbullying.gov definition, but it probably should be. I guess the fact that it could have been a lot worse doesn’t mean that it wasn’t bullying. And now there is the added dimension of social media bullying, which wasn’t the case even as recently as 2005 (at least in my daughter’s fourth grade class). There are many stories in the press about kids who commit suicide after being bullied on social media.

And why does the government’s definition limit it to school aged children? The biggest bully in the world right now is a grown man who lives in the White House. In addition to all of his other sins – and we could be here all day if we wanted to discuss them – he has made bullying okay for his followers. Of all his awful legacies, that may be one of the hardest to undo when we finally get rid of him.

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Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, I think there is a fine line between being teased and bullied. Perhaps intention is part of it. There are regular news stories now about kids (usually, but not always girls) who are bullied so much on social media that they commit suicide, which is horrible to contemplate. I was teased a lot as a child; for my glasses, bad teeth (before braces) and hair cut, lack of bust line when the other girls were blossoming. It hurt me terribly and I thought I was being bullied. I have written about it a bit (in the story about my 11th birthday party), so for this prompt took aim at the man in the White House.

    Because of my experience as a child, I tried to protect my own children and would call parents (like you did) when I heard about situations at school. I think it is good for parents to step in before things get out of hand, particularly as both my kids were shy and sensitive.

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, I mention in my story that kids commit suicide after being bullied on social media. Didn’t realize that it was usually girls. It certainly makes me glad that we didn’t have social media when we were young, or even when our kids were young.

  2. Good food for thought, Suzy. I certainly agree that there is no age limit on bullying; quite the contrary. My eldest sister Louise, now deceased, spent her last eighteen months in a nursing home. There were many, many incidents of staff bullying the residents. I think the notion of power imbalance is critical, and in fact, when the victims are powerless, as nursing home residents are, it does not take much to cross the line into bullying. Regarding your daughter’s situation, I think it’s right to focus on persistence. A one-time comment is a tease; repetition ad nauseam is bullying.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    I think Molly’s experience qualifies as bullying because that’s how it felt to her. Your example about taking off your glasses to keep yourself from being bullied is a classic example of female Mean Girl behavior. You were the bystander who went along with the bully to avoid being bullied yourself. I’m sure I did as well (see my story). And Trump definitely sets the tone these days, as Betsy pointed out.

    • Suzy says:

      Laurie, you’re making me sorry I told the story about taking off my glasses. I don’t like hearing you say that I was engaging in Mean Girl behavior, which, of course, wasn’t even a term 60 years ago.

  4. John Shutkin says:

    A really good, comprehensive analysis of bullying, Suzy. I, too, don’t know exactly where to draw the line (gender? power imbalance? impact?), but maybe it doesn’t make that much difference in the end. Mean is mean.

    That said, as you note, the biggest bully of them all is in the White House. And what he does is unmistakably bullying; no fine lines here. Not exactly “Be Best,” is it, Melania?

    Thank you, Suzy, for bringing this important issue to Retro. (But, as a total aside, if you had asked me, I would have assumed that Crocs started in California. Doesn’t everything?)

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John, glad you agree with me. But it was not I, it was Laurie who brought this issue to Retro. She has given it a lot of thought, as you will see if you read her insightful story.

  5. Marian says:

    Good exposition of the difficulties of defining and dealing with bullying. I guess one person’s tease is another person’s bullying, so it is in the eyes of the target. I know one of the most hurtful experiences after repeated teasing (or bullying) is someone saying “Can’t you take a joke?”, implying a personality flaw in the target, which only makes everything worse.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, I never meant you were being a “mean girl” — only trying to survive, which is what most of us did (me included) at that age. Most girls are bystanders and it takes a lot of education to get the bystanders not to follow the bully. What I was taught as a kid was to blend in and not make waves. Also, to change myself so I fit in better.

  7. Thanx Suzy and all for your comments, the bully stories we hear now are heartbreaking,
    And how ironic that our FLOTUS has taken the fight against bullying as her mission!

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, truly heartbreaking. Hoping that you have a story too, Dana, if not from your own life then from your librarian days.

      • Suzy, altho I don’t remember any specific incidents, my old teaching colleagues, especially those who were counselors or other support staff, surely handled bullying among our students.

        Bullying is so heartbreaking and damaging to young lives, I hope the current awareness and the anti-bullying initiatives will have a good affect.

  8. Suzy, I don’t really have much new to add here but wanted to chime in. I too struggle with the term. There’s definitely a fine line between bullying and teasing. My older brother was a bully, I was both in his thrall and afraid of him, and he often made me cry. And my mom would always say, “Oh, he’s teasing, he just wants to get a rise out of you so just ignore him and he’ll leave you alone. You’re too sensitive!” She was mostly right. But at what point does this type of behavior become worthy of punishment, at what age, in what milieu, and in whose opinion? How is power imbalance quantified? Many more questions than answers here! But, I think this and other maladies afflicting our civilization, or “uncivilization,” are part of a much deeper systemic problem that may only change as the pendulum swings back to a kinder time.

    • Suzy says:

      Barbara, thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear that your brother made you cry, and that your mother didn’t do anything about it. I was always glad as a kid that I didn’t have any brothers, I would hear stories about teasing from friends who did, and sisters (like mine) seemed so much kinder. But of course that doesn’t have to be the case, and parents should step in. When my son used to tease his older sister, and she didn’t strike back, my husband and I would do so on her behalf. Not sure if that was the right approach, but we couldn’t just sit by and watch her take it.

      • Your kids were fortunate to have such kind and sensitive parents. It seems like it should be second nature, but I also think parenting has evolved since we were kids with more emphasis on communication and fairness among other things. I was/am a better mom than my mom because I also learned how not to be. (Sorry Mom, I love you but…)

  9. I’d say your personal yet objective look at bullying received such smart, thoughtful, and comprehensive coverage, I couldn’t add much except to offer a simplistic differentiation. Bullying has always forced a bifurcation of responses: Some people who have been bullied respond by bullying others; others respond by resolving that they would never do to others what was done to them. I see this distinction in parenting as often as I see it in children.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Charlie. But don’t you think the bifurcation you refer to in the responses to bullying could equally apply to other types of bad behavior? Those who are subjected to whatever it is either turn around and do it to others, or resolve that they would never do such a thing.

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