It's the other children.
We think of children as good and innocent and pure. Unfortunately, that doesn't keep many of them from bullying, whether socially, virtually, or physically, to the point of pure physical beatings. Have a strange name? Solution: bullying! Look different from other children? Solution: bullying! Act differently from other children? Solution: bullying! You get the idea. Difference is to be punished.
And we, as in society, teach them that this is okay. Have you ever watched The Disney Channel? Or Nickelodeon? In almost all their shows, they have one core message. Normal is good. Different is bad. Caring for many children over the years, I've been exposed to a lot of these television shows. Jessie, the Disney G-rated show which so many of the kids I've cared for love, has that exact implicit message. Mean characters, like "Hagatha" (which is the nickname they give her in the show, based on her appearance) are ugly. Good characters are pretty. Weird characters, like "Creepy Connie," a huge Harry Potter fan and nerd stereotype, are bad and you shouldn't be nice to them because you'll give them ideas and they'll be creepy. Those characters who are made out to be bad (as in unattractive or weird or different in any way) are bullied by the 'good characters' and we're taught that the 'bad characters' deserved it.
Most any non-Y rated programming has this 'normal = good, different = bad' formula at its very core. And it's not just a television issue. It's learned at home, it's learned at school, it's learned from other children, it's learned all over. It is a social message that pervades our world, one that kids pick up and act aggressively on. And though schools are better now than when I was growing up, I'm sad, because the knowledge of the fact that this world we live in is "better" doesn't mean that it's a world where kids who are different live free of beatings or verbal cruelties (and though sticks and stones may break your bones, words still can cause deep and lasting wounds). It just means that happens less often.
Well, "less often" isn't good enough for me, and I'd hope it's not good enough for you, either. We can do a whole lot better than we're doing now. Though we may not be in a position to stop bullying directly and there's no magic switch in a child's head that will erase this formula that they've been taught, the messages that we choose to send to children are important, too.
Almost every single child I've cared for (I've cared for neurotypical children, too) knows that I am a proud nerd, and that I was bullied for being 'weird' growing up. They know that I wasn't bullied with fists, I was bullied with words, because, as I teach them, that's bullying, too. A lot of anti-bullying messages fly straight past kids because they're taught bullying is a physical thing (by those same shows I referenced), the one where a kid picks you up and steals your lunch, or pushes you in the hall. Teasing and taunting with words, on the other hand, they think of as a completely different thing, and they need to be taught that it's not.
More than that, we have an even stronger message, which many parents unapologetically send their children (not realizing the potential for harm), which is this. It's okay to bully a bully. Actually, it's more than okay, it's heroic. It's the little guy standing up to the big guy. It's David vs Goliath. Fighting back against a bully is a Good Thing.
Only, here's the thing. It's not. Because that bully isn't always a bully.
Case in point? This incident:
<<"A 13-year-old autistic boy has been punched, teased and had his condition mocked in online videos by his peers. But the parents of the accused children say they were justified in bullying the Iowa teen.
...“I would say three-fourths of this stuff he brings on himself and probably a fourth of it is bullying that shouldn’t be going on,” said Levi Weatherly, father of the teen accused of posting the video online.
...“He called my nephew a nasty name, and my nephew Cole cocked (sic) him in the mouth,” resident Jamie Harrison wrote to the station. “I’m proud of my nephew for doing that.”
- Iowa Parents Defend Bullying of Autistic Teen>>
This is just one that made the news. But there are so, SO many more. I've seen them, you guys. I've seen people on the spectrum, in an effort to fit in or re-apply things they've seen in one social situation inaccurately to another or just plain not reading the social rules of a situation say "mean things" without even the slightest intention of cruelty. And all it takes is one incident. One incident and you're branded a Bully. One incident and it's open season to bully you, because if society's implicit message that different = bad leads to bullying...well, you can imagine what an explicit message does.
The results are pretty horrifying.
So I teach the kids I care for. I tell them, you know how you and your friends like to call each other silly names just for fun? Like your friend calls you Paul-poo-poo and you call him David-doo-doo? (Yes, kid sense of humor there.) What would happen if you called a kid who was not your friend that? Would they still think it was funny? Or might they think it was mean?
When we've established that it's the latter, I'll ask them how they know that it's okay to say that to friends joking, but not to non-friends and teach them about unspoken social rules.
Then I tell them that autistic kids have trouble reading unspoken rules. I ask them, if an autistic kid called a stranger the same names you can call a friend, could the other kids think the child was being a bully, and be mean to the child? A: Yes. I ask, but was he really being a bully? A: No.
And it's an aha! moment. A moment of horror, to be sure, as the child thinks back through the times when they may have inaccurately been mean to a child, but a moment of realization. This one talk isn't likely to change their behavior in the real world - that takes more than one talk from more than one source. But it plants the seed, makes the child slow down a bit and try for accuracy more before deeming someone a bully, and that's more than worth the three minutes it took me to walk them through the scenario.
These are my contributions to try to reduce bullying in the world. I'm careful with the television shows I let the kids watch. I'm open about my own experiences with bullying. And I teach them that any type of bullying is wrong, no matter what form it takes or who the target is.
Here are some resources to use to help teach kids in your lives about bullying and monitor the messages they're learning from television:
-Common Sense Media reviews kids television shows for appropriateness. Don't pay attention to the ages they give, read the actual review and decide for yourself if it's sending the right messages to your children. -https://www.commonsensemedia.org/tv-reviews
-Cartoon Network has a Stop Bullying: Speak Up webpage, with a pledge and game badges you can earn. It's ironic, I know, considering that they host one of the TV shows I'd list as encouraging the attitudes that lead to bullying, but it's actually a pretty good webpage to refer your kids to.http://www.cartoonnetwork.com/promos/stopbullying/
Having given you those resources, what works for each individual person and each case is different, and I can't claim to have all the answers. So I'll poll the audience. What do you guys think would help reduce bullying? Because I think we can all agree the status quo is unacceptable.