What I Know About Bullying…

Michelle Wegner, a missional mom who recently posted her story on this site, just blogged about the topic of bullying, and as I’ve been thinking a great deal about this as well, I thought I would do the same. The more people who are talking about this issue, the better!

When I was a child, I went through a rough period in elementary school in which I was clearly the least favorite person in my class. I was always the one picked last for a team, always the one that no one wanted to partner with, always the one whose comments elicited snickers for reasons I still don’t understand. In other words, I was the outcast. I’m not exactly sure why; I’m guessing it’s some combination of being from a typical immigrant family without much money which ensured that I was always wearing or saying the “wrong” thing, plus being the only minority in the class, plus being less than well-groomed compared to my slick suburban classmates. (My parents were up and out of the house well before I left for school in the morning and didn’t come home until well after I did each day.) When I look at photos of myself from back then, I can see why I was an easy target! Awkward, unfashionable, chubby (actually, these adjectives still fit me today as much as I try my best to hide it!) And although I was never outright bullied, I experienced enough shunning and biting comments to ensure that I knew I was on the margins, which made those waning years of childhood amongst my most unpleasant and unhappy.

I never told anyone about these struggles; I wasn’t close enough to my parents to share and it wasn’t really in my nature to do so anyway. I just stuck it out and went on with my life. But even now, years later, remembering those years still makes me sad. And it makes me ache for each and every child who feels like an outcast, or who feels marginalized, or even worse, who is targeted for whatever reason and made miserable by other children or teenagers. Those wounds cut deep, they are never forgotten, and I can only imagine how much worse it is for kids who experience even more relentless and cruel treatment than I ever experienced. Your self-esteem plummets. You start to dislike, then even dread going to school. You feign illness to avoid the unpleasantries of school life, and you aren’t motivated to learn or participate in class out of fear of being mocked, again. What ultimately saved me is that our family moved away and I had the chance at a fresh start in a new school. I never really left the margins of the high school caste system, but I found enough friends to make the journey through adolescence tolerable. But many kids don’t have the opportunity to leave behind a bad situation, or their suffering becomes so intense that they see no way out. And NO child or teenager should ever be pushed to the brink that they feel there is no way out.

What can the church do to proclaim the message of hope and love that is in, throughout, and from Christ? How can we do a better job of helping today’s youngsters and teens understand that there is a way out, no matter what their situation, no matter what their sexual orientation, no matter how hopeless they might feel? I don’t have any great answers at this point, only questions, but this much I know about bullying: Jesus would have none of it. He stood up for the outcasts, the misfits, the marginalized, and we are called to do exactly the same.

I’d love to hear from you: what are the ways we can better help today’s children and youth understand the love, hope, and joy that is in the message of the Gospel?

2 Comments on “What I Know About Bullying…

  1. Helen-

    Thanks for another thoughtful post and for your vulnerability in sharing from your own wounded-ness. Praise God for His grace, instilling clear strength of character and endurance that you were capable of sticking it out and having an opportunity for a “fresh start”. Many don’t. In reading about your experience I can’t help but think how interesting it is that young children can’t really imagine or wonder about the life outside their own. Interesting in the sense: What is God’s intent in creating a being with the developmental timeline such as ours? How many kids in your early experience could critically look at you and ask themselves questions that would help them understand what made you different-from your race to your grooming habits. What is troubling is that the adults in the situation(teachers and parents)didn’t seem to be able to put the pieces together enough to lend you a hand, foster understanding at school or teach/model kindness at home.

    What evidence childhood behavior gives of the existence of original sin! With my own children, in particular my 3yo, I see glimmers of empathy within an otherwise extremely selfish nature. What I mostly see though, is a reflection of mine and my husbands behavior, VERBATiM!! As a fellow mother, I know you know what I mean. Thus, I primarily fault parents for setting the bad example for bullying and cruelty and as the arrogant mentors of the larger social trend toward incivility. As for the church, well as much as Christians like to think they are different in their redeemed status, I tend to witness very little grace, a lot of marginalization and plenty of nose raising. Yeah, yeah, “God loves everyone”…but doesn’t His church and the “Christian” marketing machine seem to favor the beautiful, intelligent, eloquent and talented just a little bit more- just like the rest of the world?

    Isn’t it ‘funny’ how Jesus never comes across as a bully though delivering the harshest message of eternal consequence??-No finger in the face, screaming while holding a picket sign outside of clinics or mosques or political rallies. I digress…a different bullying venue.

    I agree: “Jesus would have none of it”. I lack a recent survey of the entire new Testament. My impression is that Jesus didn’t preach kindness and love(Blessed are the merciful) nearly as much as he demonstrated it (touching the Leper–who is not at fault for his disease just as a young child is faultless for their genetic make-up or lacking grooming skills not being taught or valued). And, his public demonstrations of kindness and love were usually about exposing sin to those who otherwise were convinced that their ‘externals’ were adequately compensating for their ‘internals’. Maybe the church is too caught up, itself, in primping its image and programs and has lost site of its own original, simple beauty: “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2.

    Respectfully-”

  2. Laurie–thanks for your post, there is so much to respond to here! I don’t know if I will hit all your points but I will try. I’m guessing that when a child is elementary-school aged, he/she is just not attuned to the nuances of why someone might be different or targeted; it is likely so much easier to just go along with the majority in order to fit in and be accepted. Parents have to intentionally teach their children to stand up for, defend, and befriend those who are on the margins, but how many of us regularly and consistently do this? And yes, it would be helpful for teachers to be sensitive to these dynamics but I think many just don’t notice what is happening (as they have their hands full just managing their classrooms as a whole!)

    I do think it’s a combination as you say of modeling right behavior, but also about constantly talking about the countercultural, truly Christian approach, which is to do as Jesus did and encourage our children to build relationships with those on the margins. And that can sometimes be more difficult than not being cruel–you make a great point about how even the Christian subculture tends to elevate certain kinds of people to “celebrity” status. We aren’t immune from those same cultural forces that tell us that it’s better to be someone who is “successful” in a worldly sense than someone who is an outcast. And yet, the Bible I read champions those very people that we often strive so hard not to be!

    With our own children, we have such a great opportunity to foster attitudes of kindness and open-heartedness to those who are different in some way or on the margins. The earlier we help them embrace these values, the better. So perhaps one of the best things churches can start to do to help reduce bullying in their own communities is to encourage the parents in their midst to start helping their children champion the weak and the marginalized. That would be one concrete way to start!

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Laurie!”

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