I recall with painful clarity the daily emotional warfare that preteen girls are capable of waging. As a 13 year-old girl, I was blindsided more than once, caught in intricate webs of social ostracization, the kind that would make the producers' of reality television shows heads spin.
To be fair, I often was guilty of doing the blindsiding, too.
Middle school seems to bring out the worst in people. The drama and intimidation and psychological combat that run rampant through so many middle school hallways, fueled by rampaging hormones and an animalistic drive for a decent seat in the social hierarchy, can lead to some deep-seated long-term trauma. Sure therapists and pharmaceutical companies and New Age life coaches are reaping the benefits of adults still dealing with painful middle school memories. They're preying on the survivors. The ones who made it out, however emotionally scarred they may be.
The truth is that everyone doesn't make it out of middle school alive.
Yesterday, Daniel Fitzpatrick's family buried the body of their 13 year-old son. On Thursday, Daniel's older sister found him dead, hanging from a belt in the attic. "I gave up," Daniel wrote in a long letter about his struggles with school bullying.
And so we're forced to endure hashtag activism from formerly bullied B-list actors. In the coming months, we might see some cheesy PSAs that are supposed to be designed to plant seeds of hope inside the hearts of suffering kids. New legislation will be introduced in city council meetings. Zero-tolerance policies will be added to student handbooks all across the country (You know, the kind that place guilt on innocent bystanders who witness bullying but do nothing? The policies that directly contradict the zero tolerance policies about violence? Do nothing and you're screwed. Stand up to an asshole by implementing a well-timed throat punch and you're screwed, too.)
Local school systems will be forking out loads of their scant funds on the social program du jour: Anti-bullying campaigns. There are a bunch, many of them making wild claims about their effectiveness at creating "bully-free schools". For only a large investment of funds these companies will help school systems implement their programs. It's a win/win, right? The company makes money, the CEO earns enough to buy a beach house somewhere posh, and the school kids get a drama-free, totally smooth, non-psychologically scarring educational experience.
Except that doesn't happen.
At least not the last part, but that beach house is totally bitchin'.
The bullying doesn't stop. In fact, research shows that students who attend schools with anti-bullying programs are actually more likely to experience bullying than students at schools that lack a program. Statistics make it easy to think maybe all of this anti-bullying hooplah is just a money-making scheme with a social agenda to make us feel good about what we aren't actually doing.
I'm no bullying expert, at least not aside from my own middle school experiences (as well as more than a few parental interventions on behalf of my own children), but maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the focus on what to do with the bullies.
We believe that bullies are evil incarnate and must be stopped, shamed, suspended, embarrassed, and exorcised right out of our school systems. We must search it out and exterminate it. For the children.
But sometimes the definition of bullying is so vague that almost anything that almost kinda sorta makes anyone uncomfortable might fall into the category. It has often been said that the harder you look for something, the more likely you are to find it. Does searching out bullies and bullying, actually create the thing we are trying to prevent? Because we are looking for it so we can stamp it out before it gets out of hand even if it isn't really there in the first place.
Maybe in doing so, we aren't giving kids the chance to learn the skills to manage disappointment and adversity all on their own. Adults and our anti-bullying campaigns will swoop in with our super hero red capes to save them. We wouldn't want little Johnny to feel sad. We can't tolerate anything that might even have the slightest hint of bullying.
I get that suicide is horrible and tragic. I get that Daniel Fitzpatrick's might have been prevented, and that makes it all the more horrible and tragic.
Daniel Fitzpatrick told his teachers. No one swooped in with a red cape to save him.
I can't help but wonder if we are focusing on the wrong things.
Maybe we shouldn't be lurking around corners trying to catch someone being mean or shouting about the evils of bullies. Maybe instead we should be trying to create more resilient people.
A child who knows that they are worth something, not because they've been told this through empty platitudes, but because they have proven it to themselves and others, children who understand respect and empathy aren't just better able to deal with the stress of being bullied... they are also less likely to be the bully.
It's weird how that works. By building up kids, creating situations where they can build their own self-esteem, prove to themselves that they are valuable and capable and strong, we can better prevent bullying than we could with any pre-packaged, over-priced, flashy program or zero-tolerance policy. Because bullies bully for many of the same reasons that kids suffer from bullying (low self-esteem for example).
We can't always be the ones with the capes, swooping in to save the weak. We need to give the weak their own capes and let them save the day for themselves. We need kids who can adapt to stress, who have a capacity to overcome and even be strengthened by life's adversities, instead of weak kids who need a safe space because words hurt.
Because adversity doesn't only exist on school playgrounds or within the cold cinder block walls of schools named after dead presidents. There are difficult human beings that we will have to encounter through all stages of our lives. I've dealt with bigger, meaner bullies as an adult than I ever faced as a school kid (and that's saying something considering how my "best friend" treated me in 7th grade). And once out in the real world, dealing with asshole neighbors and co-workers and government employees and waitresses with issues, there won't be any expensive anti-bullying programs to hide behind when people are mean. We can't shelter children from ever hurtful word or mean person and then expect them to magically deal with them once they turn eighteen.
We need to be focusing on raising kids who can suck it up, who can cope with hardship, who have such a confident sense of self that it doesn't make them feel less when someone doesn't like them. And yeah... we probably need kids with a sense of humor, ones who don't get completely butt-hurt when someone says something slightly crude or demeaning or inappropriate (like "butt-hurt" for example).
A kid with strong qualities like that... well, it won't matter what someone throws at them. Unless it's a wild right hook. But you can sign them up for martial arts classes to help them deal with that (Funny thing is: martial arts helps foster all of those other anti-bully qualities like self-respect, confidence, and tenacity, too. But that's a whole other blog topic).
I'm just saying that maybe, just maybe, it isn't about the bullies. Maybe it's never been about the bullies. Maybe we just need to raise better kids.
Maybe we just need to teach our kids to both literally and figuratively take a punch and have them keep on swinging. Maybe there are better things we can spend our money on than ineffective yet sanctimoniously satisfying anti-bullying programs. (Shameless martial arts plug: Karate only costs about $60 a month. That's way cheaper than the thousands the school systems spend on those stupid campaigns... Just sayin'.)