When I was a teenager, my friends and I spent a lot of time working under a particular woman.
She was one of those adults you approached with caution, divining her mood before engaging her in conversation.
On one of her bad days (one of mine), she threw a juice can at my head. On another, she berated a fragile, young girl until the girl sobbed and repeatedly hit her head off a wall. A good day meant no screaming, no belittling, no destroyed projects (verbally or, sometimes, literally). Often, it just meant that someone else was the target.
Why did we continue working for her, you ask? That’s pretty complex. For starters, she was brilliant, and we loved her ideas. For another, we craved the bonding that came from sharing a common interest. And, on good days, I think we mistook our relief for affection. I don’t know that any of us believed we had the power to fight her. She was the adult, and we accepted her authority.
I have read a lot about bullying, counseled kids through it and been both bully and victim on occasion. From what I understand, a bully needs some advantage over a victim in order to successfully bully. This imbalance takes many forms: a group against an individual, a person with more social standing against someone with less, a person who resembles the group against someone who looks different and so on. I guess I cannot think of a situation that lends itself to power imbalance more than an adult over a child. While I believe that children need powerful adults, I think all adults must evaluate just how they use that power.
I have come to recognize a certain look a child wears when they have had a degrading encounter with an adult. There is a tightness to the face — a shut-down, shattered, bewildered expression that bespeaks hopelessness. In my career — and in my parenting — I have seen that look far too often.
When discussing “motivational” tactics, such as shaming, shunning and public humiliation, sometimes there is an unspoken agreement that the end justifies the means. As long as we get the desired result, the way we get there is irrelevant. We could probably use that as an argument for child abuse. If I hit a child hard enough and persistently enough, I can probably get them to do whatever I want. I personally feel that the way we get to an end says everything about us and our journey together.
The Bible tells us to speak truth in love. I think we are all better at one half of that verse than the other. I have failed many by not being forthright enough. Just love, with no expectations and no consequences, is enabling and dishonoring to a person’s potential. But truth-telling, without love — without some insight as to whether this truth will help an individual grow, without some standard for how and when the message is delivered — is just a platform for bullying.
I sometimes wonder how my teen life would have been different if not for the woman I described in the beginning paragraph. I wonder what my friends and I could have produced if we had focused more on our work and less on her state of mind. Maybe she prepared us for life: for unbalanced people and abusive situations. Unfortunately, her preparation taught silence and helplessness when she could have been teaching us to find our voice and believe in ourselves.
My friend says that we cannot expect children to stop bullying until we, as adults, stop. She feels, and I agree, that there is no campaign or policy strong enough to combat this double standard. Until we honestly assess our own failings in this area (the times we call out a child in front of others or make them the brunt of our shifting mood) and model a communication that protects self-worth while encouraging growth, nothing will change. Until we become the people we expect our children to be, bullying prevails — with our consent.
Mary White is from the Malone area. She and her husband have five children, eight cats, two dogs and three guinea pigs. She has had the privilege of working with children and families (her own and other people’s) for more than 20 years. For more of her columns, visit http://marywhitelovestories.com.