A report released today said that teachers in Essex are advising bullied children to do things like “act less gay” and change their hairstyles to avoid being picked on.
It’s hard to know where to start, but let’s begin with the simple matter of consistency. If we’re going to lecture bullied kids on their behaviour, perhaps we could at least decide what we’re going to tell them to change about themselves, then stick to it? It’s extremely confusing for young people to see Kidscape running “courses” for bullied victims with well-meaning tips on how to increase their confidence, stick up for themselves, and not internalise the messages given them by the bullies, whilst teachers are telling them they should internalise the messages they hear, listen to the bullies, be aware of what people think of them, be more like everybody else, and essentially allow the people who act the nastiest to dictate what terms of behaviour are and aren’t acceptable. So let’s get that straight among ourselves as adults first, shall we: are we telling bullied kids it’s their fault because they’re too sensitive, or because they’re not sensitive enough?
Assuming we decide how best to try and change bullied children, it’s still a bit of an odd solution. If changing people was easy, we’d surely be trying to change the actual bullies? But we’re not, so presumably, we accept that we can’t reasonably expect to change those people. There will always be bullies, and it’s part of life. Right? So what the hell are we doing trying to change the behaviour of ordinary kids who are simply going about their day, minding their own business? Kids don’t just learn by what you teach, they learn by example. If you single out the easiest people to scapegoat, instead of the people actually at fault, you’re setting them a pretty clear example. And it’s not an anti-bullying one.
Anyway, aside from whether you can or should change a child, it would be nice to see some evidence that it will actually do some good. Does it make the bully learn that their behaviour is destructive, for example? Or do they just go off to pick on somebody else? Does it not sometimes makes things worse? Won’t the bullies see they are getting a reaction and carry on? It’s a rather exhilarating demonstration of your power over someone, if that’s what floats your boat, watching them change their behaviour entirely to suit you. It’s not clear why this would stop a bully.
And most importantly of all, even if it does stop the bullying, it still doesn’t do much to mitigate any psychological damage the victim is suffering. Everyone who has experienced it knows bullying isn’t just punching and kicking; hurled rocks and laughter; being tripped over and spat on. It feels like a lesson in your place in the world; a lesson in your worth as a person; and, most heartbreakingly, a lesson in what kind of treatment, behaviour, and loyalty you can expect from others in life. What a bullied child needs to hear to protect themselves from the damage happening on their insides is that the bullying isn’t a measure of their worth as a person, and – crucially – they need to hear, feel, and believe that the rest of the world is not necessarily going to be like this. If you feel that who you are provokes hate in people the issue isn’t the literal manifestations of that hate, but the psychological guilt, shame, and fear that who you are could provoke hate in people at any time, throughout the rest of your life – in work, in relationships, with your family, in any children you might want to have, and so on.
But none of this is the main problem with this kind of advice, either. When you tell a child they should change for the bullies, have a good serious think about what it is, in practice, that you’re actually asking that child to do. Do you really think school policy should be to encourage whatever is dictated by the school’s least socially cooperative pupils?
What advice would be given to Holly Stuckey, who, at 12, killed herself after being labelled a “lesbian” by her classmates, because she wasn’t as outspoken and confident about sex as they were? How many of us would encourage 12 year olds to be more mouthy about sex, to pretend they have more experience than they do? Yet “acting gay” to her bullies meant behaving in a way that most adults would probably consider normal, positive, and – if anything – praiseworthy. Kids get bullied for not taking drugs, for studying hard, and for standing up for other bullied kids. I’ve seen kids get bullied for being Christians, for spending time with their grandparents, for being affectionate to their parents. I’ve seen kids get bullied for having intellectual hobbies, and for doing volunteer work. Most of us would admire these things – and most of us would definitely admire, respect, and love these children. Bullies make their victims feel like nobody will ever admire, respect, or love them ever again. The bullies are in the minority. You know why? Because they are the ones with the problem. And changing the behaviour of the people’s they choose to victimise will not address that problem, not even a little bit.
It’s easy for parents and teachers to slip into victim-blaming mode without realising it; to fall for the lie that, somehow, the majority can’t be wrong, even when the question of who is in the majority and who is in the minority is completely contextual. It’s easy to forget that it is actually quite hard to stop thirty people doing anything when there’s only one of you, no matter whether you’re shy, confident, articulate, tough, emotional, friendly, bright, stupid, brave or, well, basically whoever you are. (Although you’d think teachers, of all people, would be sympathetic. Presumably if they didn’t realise how hard this is, they’d be able to control the bullies themselves in the first place.)
The advice handed out by these teachers in Essex is likely to be dismissed as rogue and unrepresentative. Most people don’t feel this way, we will be told. Or, we will be reminded that schools always declare a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on bullying. Because everyone agrees that bullying is wrong, and everyone states with dull eyes and a sad face that it is never the victim’s fault, and every adult you speak to is horrified by the stories you tell them about what happened to you, yet strangely, almost every kid you happened to know at the time was not. Meanwhile, 70% of children have been bullied, and on average at least 16 children a year kill themselves over it.
And the reason organisations like BullyingUK responded so quickly and passionately to the news report is that people experience this victim-blaming mentality all the time. There’s nothing even surprising about it; it is often the way the world is run. And that’s why people kill themselves.
For all my pontificating on this blog about everything from Europe to welfare to human rights to religion, there isn’t much I even claim to speak about with any real authority. But I do know about this. Bullied children don’t usually commit suicide because it’s upsetting when someone makes fun of their hairstyle five days a week. It’s because of the bigger picture. Because it often looks like the world celebrates and rewards bullies, while it blames, mocks, and patronises victims. Because it looks like there are more of them than there are of us, and always will be. And because it looks like no-one is really on our side against them. When you tell a fourteen year old that the best way to stop themselves being bullied is to change things about themselves that they feel they couldn’t change even if they wanted to; things that form a fundamental part of who they are, you should be aware that you’re potentially telling a suicidal person that their reasons for wanting to kill themselves are valid, correct, and shared, officially, by the world.
And then there’s the question of the message we’re sending to the bullies. These children are often victims of bullying or abuse of some sort themselves, after all, and by teaching them (by implication) that abuse, assault, or harassment is pretty much a natural response to finding another person disturbing, threatening, weird, or annoying, you’re hurting these children as well. In fact, you’re hurting them twice over; firstly, by making it easier for them to avoid actually getting help for their own problems – which may be a lot more serious than being a bully, by the way, as it’s usually a symptom of something – and then, secondly, by making them feel even more to blame for their own victimisation, however serious or trivial, in whichever area or areas of their life it may be occurring. When a bully feels worse about themselves, they – being a bully – tend to pass that negativity on to others, and even aside from that, it will very likely be pretty distressing for them, too.
So we all need to ask not just the teachers giving out this advice, but anyone expressing their support or sympathy for it: is this really how we want to raise our children? Perhaps you think this advice is nothing more than an honest reflection of the way it is “in the real world” (as people are fond of saying these days). Well yes. If you think that, you’re right. It is a reflection of the way things are in the world. And that doesn’t trouble you?
It doesn’t alarm you that a victim-blaming tyranny of the majority, which far transcends classroom politics, leaves us all with a rather ugly world to live in? Doesn’t it sadden you that we teach children to make themselves into less than they are, because it’s too difficult for us to protect them?
We have more than enough people in the world already who side with the bullies. Anyone with any sense of perspective, compassion, and responsibility should surely want to help the next generation of young people to understand that the world really, really doesn’t have to be like this. Because if we don’t, we will, in the end, get the world we deserve.