Why does one kid decide to bully another? It’s not just about random cruelty. It’s not just about power. It’s not just about bad or non-existent parenting. It’s about a whole mess of complicated circumstances and psychology. Troubled kids heap emotional abuse on each other for a lot of reasons, and the problem is we never quite know what’s behind it.
Which is why this piece from Steve Almond at Salon is so fascinating. As an 8th-grader, he was bullied by a kid named Sean. It continued for months, though Almond kept it to himself, as bullied kids often do. They even became friends again in high school, but Almond never brought up those painful months from 8th grade. He still carried those memories with him as an adult.
Then he had a great idea. He looked up Sean the bully and, via email, requested an interview with him. They had a conversation about just what was happening in both their lives during that period of bullying.
You have to read it: “Facing down my eight-grade tormentor” at Salon. Here’s an excerpt from Sean, the bully, when the two of them were talking about a popular jock named Jim Meaney:
I can still remember watching him, the big soccer star, the guy who got all the girls, and telling myself: “Don’t be jealous of this guy. This is as good as it’s going to get for him.” But everyone wants to be Jim Meaney in high school.
One other thing I should mention, there are different kinds of bullying and harassment at every different age. But you would not be the first person to accuse me of verbal or mental bullying. Actually, there’s a woman I work with who, half-jokingly, calls me a bully, just because of the kinds of jokes I make, and because of the way I handle myself in arguments. And as you know, because you’ve always been a funny guy, too, once you find something that works — you make a joke, “Hey, look at Almond wearing that ugly shirt!” and everyone laughs — you go back to that well. Very quickly that can spiral out of control. And it isn’t necessarily that I like or dislike you. It’s just that I can make myself look good by making you look bad and you don’t always care, especially as a teenager, who you hurt along the way.
That, I think, is the foundation behind almost all bullying. Insecurity leads to a need to impress people, which can be achieved (in part) by making someone else look bad, and which can spiral out of control if you don’t care about the person who’s being hurt. It’s a weird progression that starts with caring too much about what people think and ends with not caring enough.
I’m not quite sure how to protect your kid from being bullied. But I know how to keep your child from becoming a bully: it’s to teach him or her, as often as possible, to care about others. To be kind. To show love. To put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Do whatever you can do to keep them from becoming a teenager who doesn’t care who they hurt along the way.