I got bullied and lived to tell about it.
When I was 14, a bunch of guys on my cross country team cornered me in the back of the bus. Two or three of them held me down. The forced me to put icy hot on the inside of my underwear. Finally, a couple of them gave me the most intense wedgie I had ever suffered. It lifted me up off my seat. My head was pinned against the side of the school bus we were riding on. It was awful. I’m not ashamed to admit it — it hurt. It was an atomic wedgie and my briefs were Hiroshima.
When we stopped for our post-race meal. I waddled into Hardee’s like a penguin with two broken legs and made a beeline for the bathroom. I cleaned up as best I could, but the damage was mostly done. The band on my underwear was ripped to shreds. My skin was on fire. It was awful.
That was nearly twenty years ago. Today, I could probably prosecute those kids. They would have at least been banished from the team if not from the school. We take that stuff seriously these days. Back then, the coach didn’t even make them run extra.
In the last ten years, it seems to me, the national conversation about bullying has escalated. I’m not sure why. Are we raising more delicate children? Has a post-9/11 world made us more sensitive to personal forms of “terrorism?” Do we just pay closer attention than we used to? Is bullying just really more prevalent, or has social media amplified the spread of bullying tactics and language? Probably all those things are true.
Bullying isn’t good — it never has been — but I don’t think our response to it is so hot, either. This may not be a popular take, but I don’t think talking about bullying more is going to make it stop. I don’t think having a Bullying Awareness Month (October) is going to end it. I think we’ve gone a little overboard with what we refer to as bullying.
I do not think, for example, that framing bullies as future world dictators is going to be enough to scare bullies straight. Those guys who hazed me on the cross country team aren’t ruling small countries with an iron fist these days. They aren’t in jail for dog fighting or beating their wife. I think we should probably stop treating them as the same thing. I’m not even sure they were bullies. I’m more likely to think of them as show-offs. But I recognize this was just my experience.
So why do kids pick on kids?
Probably the same reasons they always have. They’re trying to figure out their place, they’re testing social hierarchies. Maybe their hiding emotional scars of their own. Hurt people hurt people, after all. As a youth ministry tribe, how should we handle this sensitivity (or, as some would argue, over-sensitivity) to bullying. Three quick things I suggest:
Create Safe Places
On my bus that day was a coach who let what happened happen. Look, I’m not in counseling over that incident. The smell of icy hot does not send me into the fetal position. I’m fine. But he still probably should’ve stopped it. He didn’t. That’s not cool.
As student ministries, we should tolerate zero bullying. ZERO. Among the body of Christ there should be true community known for it’s love and genuine concern. Teenagers can be cruel. We should stamp that stuff out immediately. Define what bullying is in your context and have a zero tolerance policy.
We Should Talk About It
I know some youth ministries formally teach on it. Even if you don’t, you should talk about it. Reference bullying in an illustrative way when you are teaching on another topic. Say, out loud, “we want you guys to feel safe here. If anyone ever gives you a hard time, let us know.” Communicate about it. Tell stories when you were bullied to let kids know this isn’t a new thing and they’re not losers because it’s happening to them. At some point, it happens to everyone.
It’s too universal an issue not to discuss.
Don’t Talk About it Too Much
To allow bullying to define a young person (either as the bully or as a victim) labels them in a way they will carry the rest of their life. It gets into their psyche and then informs their identity. Eventually they believe it’s who they are. I fear that in shining a light on bullying the way we do, we could actually be making the problem worse.
Don’t misunderstand me. Bullying is real. It’s an issue. Awful things occur every day in this country because of it. But we’d do well to not put too much attention on this type of behavior. A terrorist’s greatest weapon is not the sword or bomb or gun they wield, but the fear they spread. By not over-emphasizing bullying as a thing, we take away that weapon from potential bullies.
What do you do in your ministry to discuss bullying? Prevent it? Deal with it after the fact? How would you define bullying?