Fellow True/Slanter Bob Cook has been writing on school-based cruelty as well and something he said hit me hard — that comments on this (not here at T/S, interestingly) tend to sneer at anyone who finds bullying unacceptable. They insist it’s natural, normal, that “kids will be kids.”
Well, barracudas and piranhas will also shred your flesh, but that’s in their nature. It is the specific task of parents, teachers and other adult role models to ensure that the nastiest of children do not remain feral, vicious animals by not being told their behavior is wrong.
Those who shirk that duty, certainly while collecting pay and healthy pensions funded by our taxes, need to understand their responsibilities. If not, and a suicide is the result of such bullying, they must be criminally liable. Turning a blind eye, remaining passive, is not an option.
I am constantly shocked that bullying, (aka cruelty, abuse, unkindness), is so often described as simply a part of growing up, something we should all just “suck up” as part of becoming a Teflon-skinned adolescent or functioning adult. Great! Now we can all be cruel/wounded adults. There’s a terrific lesson.
There is no justification for deliberate acts of cruelty. Most important — and overlooked — there is no acceptable way to calibrate what is truly hurtful to someone else. This is the height of arrogance. Just because you or your kids could handle it (really?), doesn’t mean someone else has the emotional resources, or other sources of kindness and comfort or the powerful, necessary defense mechanisms to reframe their tormentors as pathetic scum.
Even the tiniest children can arrive at school — whether the bully or his/her victims — from a home already filled with toxicity: rage, alcoholism, drug abuse, incest, chronic poverty, terminal illness, madness. Kids are taught to keep their feelings private, to “be a man”, not to open up.
One of my favorite writers in the world, Susie Boyt, a columnist for the Financial Times, recently wrote a beautiful column suggesting a simple, elegant solution. Yet it is one that relies on a deep trust in others’ empathy. Is that possible?
A friend who counsels bereaved children told me recently about what she calls “rough stone” work. A child who has experienced a loss is given a rough stone and a smooth stone, and every day puts one of the stones on her teacher’s desk at school. The smooth stone means she is feeling all right; the rough stone means she is feeling bad, and is a sign that she may need a bit of extra attention, one-to-one time, cuddles, a place to cry quietly, or just general special treatment.
The child then learns, through being required to clock in emotionally, that her state of mind is of utmost concern to her teachers and her school. She can seek attention without feeling attention-seeking. There is a strong net of care that is discreet. No child wants to feel outlandish and unusual.
It makes me happy to know this system is in place in some of our schools because it was not always so. I have friends who lost a parent in early childhood and are amazed at the treatment they received. “No one ever, ever referred to the fact my father had died,” one friend still laments to this day. “They thought by mentioning it they would set me off, but I was left thinking I was the only person in the world who had noticed.”