According to the National Education Association, more than 160,000 children stay home from school every day because of fear of intimidation.3
One mother told me that her daughter awakens early each morning and lies in bed wondering, How can I get through this day without being humiliated? She worries about not having someone to sit with at lunch and how to do her hair and select clothes in ways that will not bring her ridicule. For this girl and millions of others, school is a minefield through which they walk every day. A bomb could go off underneath them at any moment. Girls whose weight is normal are called "fat," and those who have unusual physical characteristics are mocked unmercifully. They are given nicknames to highlight the features they most want to hide. This insecure world in which children live has a huge effect on them and influences the women they will someday become. And sadly the harassment often begins in early childhood, when they are least able to deal with it.
The implications for naturally fearful and shy girls are highly significant. As they grow older, some will develop ulcers, eating disorders, and depression. In her article "Terrorists in the Schoolyard," journalist Joanne Richard helps explain the scope of the problem and what very young boys and girls often have to endure.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me."
"That's a crock. It's wrong. It hurts," says parenting educator Kathy Lynn. The most common form of bullying is verbal and, according to Lynn and many other experts, school playgrounds are rife with taunts, torment, gossip and exclusion.
The problem of social bullying is widespread and strikes fear in most children and parents: "It should. It's ugly and destructive," says [Barbara] Coloroso. "Bullying is a conscious, willful and deliberate hostile activity intended to harm—pleasure is derived from another person's pain," says Coloroso, an educational consultant and author of The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander.
Janet Henderson (not her real name) knows: Her 10-year-old daughter, Sara, has been tormented and picked on for the past five years—"ever since kindergarten, when a child told her she was fat."
Henderson, 36, a stay-at-home Mississauga mother of four, quietly sobs as she recounts Sara's painful school years: "It's been hell. Bullying has destroyed her. It's taken her from being a sweet, joyful and easy-going child to being suspicious and afraid—now she'd rather be alone.
"This makes me so angry. It's heartbreaking and has affected our entire family. How can kids be so mean and their parents not do anything about it? Some parents want their kids to belong so much that they allow them to attack others in order to be part of the group, instead of teaching them to stand up for others. I see so many teachers and parents turn a blind eye."
Experts have seen it all too many times: "Bullying isn't about conflict—it's about hatred and contempt," says Coloroso, and it has deadly effects.
"Bullying is a life-and-death issue. We have enough incidents in our recent past to convince us that it is not only the bully who may terrorize and haunt our community," she says. "Some targets whose cries went unheard, whose pain was ignored, whose oppression went unabated and unrelieved, have struck back with a vengeance and a rage that has racked our communities with incomprehensible horror and sorrow.
"Others, who reached what they felt was an utterly hopeless and irretrievable point, have turned the violence inward and killed themselves. Feeling they had no other way out of the pain and torture heaped on them by their tormentors, no one to turn to, no one to tell, they made the tragic and final exit."
And it's happening in younger and younger kids, says [Ann] Douglas, author of The Mother of All Parenting Books. "In fact, it seems to start during the kindergarten years. Girls can be particularly cruel at this age, excluding a particular child in the class because he or she didn't know it was suddenly 'uncool' to still be carrying a Blue's Clues backpack or wearing Teletubby socks.
"It's the loneliest feeling in the world to be the only kid in the class who isn't invited to someone's birthday party," adds Douglas.
Online bullying is now common with older kids: Bullying via e-mail, instant messages, online diaries, and personal websites. Messages that you thought were for your former best friend's eyes only can be quickly shared with an entire school community, along with a blow-by-blow description of all your shortcomings.
According to the experts, you're not born a bully: "It is learned, maybe at home or at daycare or in the classroom or from other kids. Children learn how to relate to others by watching how older people act and mimicking them," says Lynn.
"You have to be taught to have contempt, to hate," adds Coloroso, who adds that bullies harm without feeling empathy, compassion or shame. They feel a sense of entitlement and intolerance towards difference.
The bullied share one thing in common: "They are targeted, plain and simple," says Coloroso. "Each was singled out to be the object of scorn, merely because he or she was different in some way."
The cycle of violence must be broken in our homes, schools and communities: "We as individuals, families and entire communities must create safe harbour for all of our children. We must do what is necessary to take the weapons out of the hearts, minds and hands of our kids," says Coloroso.4
3."As I See It: Strategic Ways to Stop Bullying," Kansas City Star (February 14, 2008).
4.Joanne Richard, "Terrorists in the Schoolyard," Ottawa Sun (October 14, 2004): 56.
Book: Bringing Up Girls
By Dr. James Dobson