Kids insult each other with brutal frankness but ‘few are truly nasty’

On Pink Shirt Day, this 2004 essay points out that bullies’ victims can be aggressive or provocative themselves


 

    Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.

    Feb. 22 is Pink Shirt Day, a campaign to end bullying. Below, read an essay from a mother about her daughter and the “playground jungle.” Learn more about the Maclean’s archives or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

    I read my seven-year-old daughter a storybook the other day. It had been designed to address the question of bullying. Not a rip roaring great story like Walter the Farting Dog, but, rather, one of those socially instructive tales that abound in children’s literature, such as Heather Has Two Mommies, or Everyone Poops. Given the current near-obsession on childhood obesity, I reckon it’s only a matter of time before we see Emma ’s Roomy Pants. Likewise, perhaps you’ve noticed that “bullying” has become a pervasive catchword of late. There’ve been newspaper headlines, school pamphlets, public seminars, government studies, all centred on what to do about bullying at school.

    It is unclear, actually, whether incidents of bullying have increased since I attended elementary school in the 1970s. But certainly the concept has gained more urgency, and initiatives to combat bullying are flying out from every level of government, from municipal school boards putting on plays to the National Film Board producing a classroom short called No More Bullies.

    In Clara’s storybook, a little boy finds himself being tormented by a taniwha, a Maori monster with sharp teeth and wild eyes that’s rampaging around the schoolyard. His grandfather urges him to befriend the taniwha. He shares his lunch; he invites the taniwha to play ball. Ultimately, they forge a happy friendship. The book’s illustrations gradually shift, so that the taniwha looks less and less like a monster and more like an ordinary boy. “You see?” I said to Clara. “Bullies are really just insecure children trying to get attention. Instead of being scared of them, try to befriend them and see what happens.”

    My daughter chewed on her lip, looking decidedly unsure, and possibly wondering if I had a screw loose. Clara knows that there is an adult label for kids who bug you: “bully.” And like other children, she is eager to put her knowledge of adult labels to use. But, in the highly complicated universe of her elementary school, it is difficult to picture what adults actually mean by bully. From Clara’s point of view, all children pick on each other, in one way or another. That is her experience. I ought to know this, because whenever I listen to conversations between little girls in her class, I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry, they’re so outrageously cutting.

    Some morning, one of them might come up to me and say: “Who’s prettier, Zoe or me?” Unlike adults, who suppress their feelings and make nice, and would therefore say, “Oh, I think you both look lovely,” young children insult one another with brutal frankness. “You’re prettier, by far—Zoe’s hair looks stupid,” a kid might respond.

    Under the circumstances, it is hard for children to pick out the “bullies” among all the garden-variety offenders who hurt their feelings—and whose feelings they hurt right back—on a daily basis. On reflection, Clara helpfully identified as “a bully” a boy who actually suffers from ADHD. He is hyperactive and impulsive, and will often throw chalk. In effect, he harasses her. Is that what adults mean by bullying? I asked the principal of Clara’s school. She said she would dearly like to see more information out there for parents on “what bullying is not.” In her view, bullying involves a powerful child picking on a weaker or less secure victim. She distinguishes this from peer aggression, which is also perceived to have increased in Canadian schools, although—again—there is little concrete data.

    I seem to recall throwing a rock at someone when I was in elementary school. I also remember that bullying essentially involved the so-called cool kids picking on the nerd, or the fat girl, and this dynamic apparently persists. A study published last December in the journal Pediatrics reported that bullies were not like the taniwha in Clara’s book. “Despite increased conduct problems,” wrote author Jaana Juvonen of UCLA’s psychology department, “bullies were psychologically strongest, and enjoyed high social standing among their classmates.”

    In other words, bullies are popular. They are not socially isolated or lonely. It is their victims—some of whom, the UCLA study points out, are aggressive or provocative themselves—who are more likely to have been demonized or rendered “monstrous,” like the taniwha. That complicates our picture of the playground jungle.

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