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The lasting empowerment of bullies

I attended a seminar on bullying at the high school last night. I was surprised to learn that bullying has become epidemic in this country. One in three kids are victimized, same ratio become bullies. The results can devastate and last for years, create permanent antisocial behaviors in both bully and bullied.

Kit has been subjected to it this past year and because his interests, tastes and attitudes are different from other boys he's going to be subjected to more as his school career goes on. I was bullied all through school because of my cleft lip. My instinct was to become introverted and avoid contact, friends and social life altogether. Kit wants no such life. He's out there, take it or leave it, and won't back down. But he can't understand why they do it or how to stop it. Thus the seminar.

What I learned was both eye opening and obvious all at once. First, there are strong state laws now across the country that take bullying seriously and school officials and teachers can be held responsible if they take no action of known incidences. On the other hand, the solutions aren't skin deep. Parents, peer groups, schools, sports teams, etc. all have to work together to create safe environments against bullying. Like that's news. It's like families that have to look out for each other or else the power balance tips. Can you say dysfunctional?

Bullying is about an imbalance of power, but isn't that what our competitive society is all about: controlling power, winners and losers? We reward those with power, no matter how they get it. Bullies wield their power without regard for social - or legal - regard. Just like rape, domestic violence, right on up to abuse of political office and warfare. It starts with low self esteem creating a void that needs to be filled. Bullies deal with feeling bad about themselves by puffing up their egos to appear better than they feel, by putting others down, and abusing whatever power they have, even if it's only a fist or a passive aggressive act. The seminar presenter suggested that some bullies have strong self esteem which makes them act superior. I challenged that notion and she modified it to "distorted" self esteem - whatever that may be.

So what do we do about poor Kit who's staring 8 years of possible abuse in the face? I considered teaching him to defend himself but that's a bad idea because it leads to retribution and can turn victims into bullies. I've told him these kids really feel bad about themselves and he's better than that but what what does that mean to a 9 year old who gets pushed around or called names? We can create a strong and loving environment at home, teach all the boys not to be abusive with each other or anybody else, make sure there is a trusting relationship so that we can talk about it and can take action through the school. But in the end victims are isolated unless peers at school and work make it unacceptable. That's a sea change in our society, necessary though it is, and isn't going to happen while he's in school.

My sister, who also has a cleft palate, and I came home broken and beaten down all through school because of something that wasn't our fault. She handled it like Kit not giving an inch and being fully engaged in school and social life. It came at a cost we both still pay. I want Kit to be who he is without bitterness, fear or anger. But this fight is just beginning and I may be helpless to protect him even though I know the road ahead.