The Culture of Meanness.

How many more times are we going to have to read about kids pushed to the point where they don’t see any other way out?

This little girl was ten years old.  TEN.

Each time I write about this, I get the same reactions (either in my email or my comments or in conversation).  Many of these reactions are positive.  However, I am also told that I should have gotten “over it” years ago.  I am told that what happened to me “wasn’t THAT bad.”  I am told that I shouldn’t express any compassion at all for the bullies.  I am told that I should stop writing about how there needs to be accountability for teachers, administrators, parents and any other ADULTS who see this sort of thing happening yet do nothing about it.  I am told that because I have decided NOT to have children, that I don’t have a say in how children are to be treated in the schools that I help support.  If you’re tired of reading about it, then just don’t read it.  I am tired of hearing that kids need to get a tougher skin, or that this is a “rite of passage” that’s just to be expected. You know what – NO. I’ve been there; the scars never fully go away.

It’s been almost 30 years, but I remember, with alarming clarity, what it was like to wake up every morning full of dread.  I remember what it was like to have my every move ridiculed.  I remember what it was like to look to the few kids that could have said something, only to have them turn away, because they didn’t want to become victims themselves.  I remember taking no joy or solace in any of the things that used to make me happy, because I had learned to stop expressing myself.

I am fortunate in that my parents listened to me.  They didn’t tell me to “try harder” to fit in.  They saw that their kid was in pain.  They pulled me out of a school where learning had become less important to me than did just getting through the day, where a handful of desperately unhappy (and therefore mean-spirited) girls dictated the climate of the classroom and where the adults who had a RESPONSIBILITY to ensure that we all felt safe refused, in my case, to intervene.  My parents got me professional help at a time when a) they could scarcely afford to do so, and b) “therapy” for a 12-year-old was not something that was looked upon favorably. I had resources, but even still – I didn’t come away from it totally unscathed.  Nobody who has been bullied does.

Get over it?  I’ll “get over it” when everybody stops acting like this is NORMAL and ACCEPTABLE.

People are expressing bewilderment that these children are even aware of suicide, that taking their own lives seems to be a viable option.  They think nothing could be that bad.  I understand these kids.  When you’re a child in the eye of a hurricane of incessant, daily, mental and verbal abuse, you have NO concept of it getting better in a year, or two years. You just want to stop hurting.  Fact:  kids are learning this kind of despair at an earlier and earlier age.

I really believe that we’re inundated with meanness right now.   We’re in a culture that rewards boorish, bullying behavior.  Just tune in to any one of those “Real Wives…” shows (or most any “reality show”) and you’ll see what I mean. The nastier you are, the more you backstab, the more airtime you’ll see, the more people will tune in. People don’t seem to make that connection. I’m not saying BAN that kind of programming, but see it as a part of the larger picture, because it all plays a part in how we interact with one another.

It’s everywhere, from what gets shown on television to the current state of “political discourse,” where anyone who disagrees with my opinion is an “idiot,” a “moron,” a “dumbass,” or a “Nazi,” and there’s no room for rational debate or compromise.  If we as adults can’t get out of the middle school cafeteria, mentally, how can we expect kids to act any different?  We can all watch those “It Gets Better” videos, we can all express sadness over the latest child suicide on our Facebook walls, but then we turn around and watch young men and women gleefully eviscerate one another on “Jersey Shore,” we openly mock those who have differing views on public policy, we call each other names because it’s easier than attempting to understand all sides of a story.  Perhaps I’m overreaching, but I don’t think so. These are angry times we live in, people are frightened and fed up, and children are soaking in this negativity.

We are the teachers, all of us.  All of us have a responsibility to teach – by example – empathy and compassion, whether we are parents, teachers, or have children in our lives that look up to us.

My heart breaks for this little girl and her family.  No child should have to be driven to that point, and no child should have to bully another child because it’s the only thing that makes him or her feel validated or secure.

8 thoughts on “The Culture of Meanness.

  1. HOLLA FOR YOU!!!! 100% agree with everything you said. Having a little boy on the autism spectrum, I am so fearful for what his life might be like once he gets out of the safety of pre-school. Kids can be mean — and they go after weakness. Right now, the kids are lovely. They see my child’s weaknesses and they actively seek ways to help him, which has just demonstrated that we’re all born good. But something happens and using hurtful words or acting out in physically hurtful ways suddenly becomes acceptable with little regard for how it affects the person on the receiving end. We all have a responsibility to listen, be aware, be pro-active, and to use good and bad examples as teaching moments to help children understand the power of their actions and words.

  2. Inspiring piece of writing, Lisa. I agree that it is a cultural issue (if that is what you are saying). This is what is troubling about anti-bullying efforts and/or the psychologization of rudeness. Trying to legislate behavior without looking at the larger issue is like sensitivity training for professional wrestlers. Adults try to teach civility out of one side of the mouth while perpetuating the culture of meanness in their own lives with the other. Kids look to adults (not just guidance counselors and assistant principles). Blaming children is too easy. Thanks for the writing (I can identify with your school experience).

  3. I can’t believe people have the gall to tell you to get over it. If you’ve been bullied and/or suffered trauma, it’s a life long process of recovery. I am blessed and cursed with an incredible memory, which means I remember the miserable and hopeless moments as well as the joyful ones.
    Thank you for having a strong and compassionate voice and stating what many of us don’t have the guts or presence of mind to say.

  4. I had a similar experience in school and no one listened and I too thought of suicide. Teachers refused to intervene and my parents figured I was making a big deal about nothing. At the very first sign that my son might be experiencing bullying, I was at the school ready to advocate for my child. And I did have compassion for the bully, because what would drive a child to torment another child? He was obviously in need of help, too. Thankfully we were able to make things right and my son is happy again at school. Keep speaking up. Everyday there are children suffering. By speaking up and sharing your experience, you are making a difference.

  5. I’m 38 (for a few more weeks, anyway), and I still walk into a room of people I don’t know and half expect them to all laugh at me for no apparent reason. It’s a gut reaction. You never really fully get over it. I look at super confident people and I wonder if they just weren’t bullied, were the bulliers, or did manage to get over it somehow. Or maybe they just fake it. I was recently told by a friend that whenever she felt uncomfortable in a social situation she would think to herself “What would Jess do?” Seriously. I almost shat myself.

  6. The entire village raises the kid. I think we all start out learning from example. Most kids today see plenty of examples of varying behaviors on TV and in their homes and schools and grocery stores. We all provide the examples which they imitate and eventually integrate.

  7. Hi Beautiful Lisa,

    I was bullied terribly as a child as well.My only real solace was the time I was able to spend with interesting people at the university. You showed me that it was okay to ‘be different.’ You were absolutely my strongest role model. During a period when I faced daily taunting and even physical abuse, you were a rock of ‘cool.’ I think without having had older guides like you, Brian and Kaarla, I very well might have committed suicide before 12. It is utterly unacceptable, I agree, that teachers condone–through silence or otherwise–bullying. This is a beautifully-written testament, and I applaud you heartily. Love, yasmine

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