You can’t pop onto Facebook or read the news without coming face to face with a slew of articles, blogs, and commentary about bullying among kids and teens today- why it happens, how it happens, what we can do to “fix” the problem, and of course, worst of all, the tales of the tragic consequences of bullying. And it all truly is so tragic and feels so confusing. It can be so easy to despair when you consider what’s going on.
And yet. The more I pay attention to the world around me, the less confused I am about why this is happening. In fact, it’s becoming startlingly clear to me. From where I’m standing, I look all around me and see that our society has become one in which bullying, while being denounced with words, is being perpetuated in almost every aspect of our society.
Think about the shows that we watch on TV. How many of them are on the air for the sole purpose of making us feel like we are better than the people we are watching? I can think of several, off the top of my head, that revolve around taking people who are pretty happy with the way they are and then convincing them that the way they dress, act, parent, or interact in relationships is somehow either not cool enough or just downright ridiculous. Or, a perennial favorite, following a celebrity family and picking apart their every conversation and action for us to laugh at and mock mercilessly.
Think about those fashion and celebrity gossip magazines we love to flip through at the beach or in a free moment at home. You know… the ones that tell us what the cool kids are wearing, which seems to always be different from what we are wearing. Or the ones that maliciously slander people in the public spotlight, as if them being famous gives us permission to say nasty things about these fellow human beings.
Think about the last time you were brave enough to read the comments on a news article, or a well-intentioned Facebook thread. How the comments so quickly turned into nastiness, name-calling, and mud-slinging. People who do not even know each other spew hatred at each other simply because they have a different opinion on which brand of diapers they use on their baby. (No. Sadly, that’s not a joke. I’ve actually seen this happen.) Worse, I have seen friendships ruined by these kinds of unkindnesses.
Think about the last time you expressed “concern” over the choices or actions of a friend, relative, or acquaintance (who wasn’t present) to someone else. What kinds of judgements and criticisms came out of your mouth? Were your kids in earshot? Are you sure? Can you be sure your kids didn’t witness that little eyebrow raise you gave your spouse when that kind-of-weird neighbor walked by? And does it even matter? Because chances are, your kids are picking up on the things you say and do more than you can imagine.
Think about the last time you saw a social media campaign or news article publicly shame a person who has done something wrong? Or maybe made a mistake? Or perhaps just made decisions that don’t reflect the mainstream culture? How often do you hear (and maybe agree with) the statement that, “Sometimes people just deserve to be shamed!”? How about those parents that publicly shame their kids for doing something wrong or unkind? We’ve all seen how many “likes” those Facebook posts get, right?
To some extent, we are all guilty of some or all of these. We are kidding ourselves if we act like this isn’t bullying. All of these things have contributed to a culture in which people grapple for the upper hand to be “cooler than”, “smarter than”, and “prettier than”. Just because we are adults, we call this behavior, “entertainment” or even “justice”. Maybe we can get a laugh out of the silliness or blunders of others via celebrity gossip or TV shows, but can we get any true joy from cutting down others? No. We can ascribe to a vigilante mentality of publicly shaming wrongdoers, but are we meting out real justice? Is that even our job? No, and no. I think we know this. We are adults. Shouldn’t we know this?
So what about the kids? Why are we all so confused about why they pick on each other mercilessly, exploiting each others’ insecurities, cutting each other down instead of building one another up? Can we really fairly ask this question of them, when the adults that are raising them are behaving, frankly, rather brutishly? Can we scratch our heads at the increasingly troublesome dynamic in our schools while we, in turn, garner entertainment from making fun of strangers on the internet and gossiping about our own friends? You guys. I just don’t think we can.
Perhaps we think we are somehow shielding our kids from this icky side of our adult culture, where grown-ups are the socially acceptable, real-life bullies. But I think that’s a fantasy. Kids pick up on every. little. thing. They are not living in a vacuum. They see us greedily lapping up those unflattering photos of the “fat” celebrity in the checkout lane. They see us exchanging meaningful glances with another mom at the PTA meeting. They see the way we laugh at people on TV who think leggings count as pants. They’re seeing it all, guys. And it’s not ok.
We can’t expect our children to see these things and not carry them with them into their hearts and relationships. We can’t be bullies while telling our kids to treat others with respect. I know it’s hard. I’m sure many people will read this and say, “It’s all in good fun, I won’t give up my gossip mags!” or “Just because I watch shows about people who dress poorly, that doesn’t mean I condone my kid beating up on other kids at school.” Of course you don’t. I don’t, either. But as this problem of bullying becomes bigger and bigger, affecting more and more families, we have to talk about the hard things and take a good look at the culture we are creating. Sure, single actions probably aren’t going to cause a child to intentionally hurt someone else, emotionally or physically. But if we look at our actions as contributing to a culture in which human beings aren’t respected aside from their entertainment value, or the emotional satisfaction we get from them, we can’t ignore these seemingly “little” habits that we, as adults, are perpetuating. Our kids are just that- kids. They look to adults for their cues on how to act, examples of how to treat others. It’s time we give them an example that’s worth following.