What is Bullying? And Does it Happen Here?


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A study in questions

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:40
  1. For the third time this week, a child slumps helplessly into a corner, breathless with laughter, while a younger, stronger child tickles her unmercifully. She is laughing so uncontrollably that no one can see her panic. How will she escape? Again?
  2. All in the classroom are invited to an after-school event, with snacks and games. All but one: the wild one who gets high on sugar and makes a lot of noise and tells jokes on the teachers and teases the girls. He hears the buzz at school about the party, the party, and he waits for his invitation, which does not come. He is seven years old.
  3. A teenager misses many afternoons of school for reasons not easily apparent, and bears the brunt of classmates’ jokes surrounding his choices. They like ribbing him. Always him. He is a scapegoat when one is needed, the outlier, the easy target for humor. He’s a good sport and laughs along. He’s so dumb he doesn’t even know it, haha, just kidding.
  4. On the edge of the gaggle of girls, a lone and sober child stands waiting to be included in the conversation, although she cannot think of anything to say. She has not been given relational tools. Her dress was made for someone else, and her hands are behind her back, nervously picking at each other. The other girls chatter and giggle. One of them casts her a sidelong look, and at some unseen signal, the pack leans into a tight circle for a whispered interchange. She is left upright, outside.
  5. Beneath a tree on the church property stands a boy with grass stains on his knees, and burrs in his white Oxford shirt. He is looking up into the tree at two other boys, whom he has asked to join and been denied. They have led him on a merry chase through the woods, all in fun of course, and no hard feelings. They are just children playing. His hands are torn, and he is fighting tears.
  6. A child runs across the road in front of a moving vehicle. Fortunately, the vehicle is not moving fast. It is the fourth dare she will take this week from her friends. The first was to step out of line in the hallway without getting caught. The second, to throw away a sandwich instead of eating it. The third, to get anything but an A on her math test. She can never say no to a dare, and they know it.

Which of these stories qualifies as bullying? A younger child picking on an older? A laughing accomplice provoked into courting his own damage? A child shunned for failure to blend in?

All of them.

Synonyms offered in a thesaurus for the verb bully may capture only a portion of the whole, but they include words like domineer. Hustle. Coerce. Strongarm. Oppress. Persecute. Nag. Intimidate. Torment. Press. Tyrannize. Cow. Push. Oblige. Hound. Goad. Force. Pressure.

If we broaden our understanding of bullying, we may see it happening: not out there in the big bad high schools and the dark alleys, but sometimes—here. In our own celebrations and school hallways and church parking lots.

I have been bullied, and I have bullied others. My children have been bullied, and they have bullied others.

Is that impossible? Is it conceivable that our children, our high scorers and great runners and joke tellers and Bible reciters and well-adapted kids—crowds of children who fit or exceed the mold—are pushing around the weak ones who look okay? There is no physical shoving. Not in public. What we see is a neat row of heads in Sunday school and on the gym bleachers, all present and correct.

Who are the isolated ones on the periphery?

Where are the unprotected?

Whose heart is in turmoil because of the treatment she receives from her peers?

Are we willing to take a closer look on behalf of those who will never speak for themselves? Or do we think our community’s stance toward outliers is understandable, and there’s not a lot we can do about it? Are we sure of our own compassion—or are we subtly giving our children permission to sideline and harass the people who don’t fit?

Bullying behaviors come from derisive attitudes, and derisive attitudes are easily excused when we care more about being on the inside of a circle ourselves than looking to see who is outside it.

How are we setting a standard of respecting all people, no matter what?

Are we gentle and humble?

Do we accept those unlike us and enjoy them for who they are, even when we require them to grow?

How did our Friend love the unlovely, he who said Blessed are the poor and the hungry, the sorrowful and the persecuted, because they are mine?

We cannot perfect our relationships to a state of flawlessness, or remove bullying from society—even from Christian society. Any of us, and any of our children, may be cruel in ways we do not even understand. Here is my question:

When it happens, are we taking it seriously, and repenting, and bridging back across the gaps?

We have the opportunity to build a place where people are connected and at rest, where attitudes of arrogance and groupthink are laid down in favor of charity, joy, and friendship. When we do anything less, we mar the body of Christ and impoverish our own communities.

Rejection costs dearly. Who pays the price?

For more information on defining, discussing, and preventing bullying, see stopbullying.gov

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Osiah Horst

4 years ago

“Adults secretly agree” is the one that stands out to me. Until that changes, we have much less hope of succeeding with the children. When being corrected after an accident, our children would answer “But I didn’t try to” and I would respond by saying “That isn’t good enough, you have to try not to.” I think the same applies to mocking.

Shari Zook

4 years ago

Yes! My friend Anna says it’s not enough to tell our kids to “be nice,” which they interpret as “don’t be openly mean.” On the opposite side of bullying we will find positive relationship and care – not passivity. I like your words about “actively teaching kindness.”

Shari Zook

4 years ago

Thank you, Osiah, well said. “We are not innocent” is clinging to my mind.

Travis Zook

4 years ago

Thanks for this reminder. We may see beauty in the innocence of children playing, but children can be very cruel to one another. We cannot assume that it isn’t happening within our students. We must actively teach kindness. Remember also our responsibility to model the love and kindness of Christ; teachers can be bullies too.

Osiah Horst

4 years ago

I suppose I should have referenced the newspaper and the writer. The story appeared in the Ottawa Citizen in a column written by John Ibbitson. I did receive his permission to quote his article.

Osiah Horst

4 years ago

In 1990, an article appeared in our local paper – the title – ‘the High Price of Mocking”It tells the story of a 19 year old boy who went on a hunting trip with friends. Richard was “different” and the writer says “We simply don’t tolerate such kids. We make fun of them and know that our teachers and parents secretly agree with us.” The writer says further “For the ten-thousandth time his peers teased him – only this time he was carrying a gun – when his mind, overwhelmed, shattered into rage.” It cost several lives – Richard’s and one of his mockers. The writer goes on to say ” We are not innocent. We cannot cure ourselves of the pleasurable habit of tormenting the unique. Every now and then we pay the price. We’ll pay it again.”Mocking is a problem among us – In the church and school, we must make the same confession – we are not innocent, and we too will continue to pay the price. And even in our setting, “Adults secretly agree.” Thanks, Shari, for addressing this issue. I wrote about this in our church paper 30 years ago, but I don’t think much has changed in this time.

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