If navigating parenthood is tough, navigating childhood is tougher.
We’ve all heard the horrifying stories of kids committing suicide because of bullying—bullycide as it being called. In California, a new law, named after 13-year-old Seth Walsh who killed himself after being tormented at school because he was gay, was passed last year.
California is the latest in a string of states adopting anti-bullying laws after high-profile suicides of LGBT students committing suicide. New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, was recently declared unconstitutional because the state did not provide funding for it.
Seth’s Law requires schools to create strict and clear policies against harassment, receive and investigate complaints as well as require faculty and staff to intervene. It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?
But like most issues in life, it gets more complicated and murky with specifics. At dinner with my girlfriends, the discussion became animated when the subject of bullying came up. One friend’s son was being bullied by another boy—a so-called “frenemy”—the worst kind because they were friends and now the bully was her son’s enemy for some unknown reason. My friend thought it might go away. It got worse. Her husband recommended their boy just belt the bully and stand up for himself. Diligent and smart, my friend looked up the California Education Code and discovered that the Zero Tolerance approach that schools take to violence could result in the suspension of all parties regardless of circumstances. She alerted the principal, the teacher and let them know about the bullying. Nothing was done.
Her son developed a nervous tick over it. And so, my friend and her husband gave their son the green light to defend himself—Zero Tolerance be damned. When the bully and a cohort approached their son on the playground and grabbed his neck, the boy pulled out a defensive Tae Kwon Do move and brought the bully to his knees. Her boy was not suspended because of the history she had chronicled with the school and because her boy was acting in self-defense.
The bully was suspended. My friend and his mother spoke on the phone. The bully, she found out, had been going through some difficult changes at home. The mother was relieved to know about the problems and in the end, thanked my friend. The bully, who has returned to school, has not bothered her boy since. My friend was saddened by the entire episode.
BULLYING, AN ILLEGAL ACT
But the discussion got very lively when we turned to Seth’s Law because it can now be considered illegal to bully. As the argument goes, criminalizing bullying might stop this devastating rite of childhood passage. When the law was passed, the Internet lit up with comments. Many rallied around the idea that criminal penalties would deter antisocial behavior and make life a little better for the victims. That is where I think it gets dangerous.
Do we really think that our society will improve by sending kids into the jaws of our criminal justice system? Will kicking a kid out of school, hiring lawyers, interrogating children with law enforcement really solve this problem? As most experts will tell you, bullying is a complex problem that stems from deep rooted insecurities or issues that likely begin with violence in the home. Should we criminalize bad (not abusive) parenting?
GENERATIONS OF BULLYING
All of us have gone through some period in our lives where we are bullied or teased—and they are always memorable if not formative and scarring events.
My mother and my aunt were called las apestosas, because of the reeking hair tonic their grandmother would put on them every morning. When they would get on the bus, all the girls would run to the back screaming, “Here come the smelly ones!” Finally, one older girl stood up for them, yelling “Leave them alone!” When my mother received a new doll for Christmas, she named her Martha Elena after her defender.
When I was in 5th grade, a boy teased me mercilessly by calling me Monchichi—those hideous little monkey dolls popular in the 1980s. I cried about it to my mother but she thought it was hilarious and actually went out and bought a Monchichi doll to show me how cute they were.
I did not think it was funny.
And so I plotted my revenge. I staked out a perfect place on the playground behind the swings where no one could witness what I was about to do. I waited a few minutes before the last recess bell rang and called my tormentor over so he could “see” something. Suspecting nothing, he walked over and just as the bell rang and kids ran to their classrooms, I punched him in the face and said, “Don’t ever call me Monchichi again.” Red faced and in shock, he stood there as I turned around and walked back to class, calmly so my teacher would not notice anything was amiss. The boy never teased me again.
Standing up for yourself is an essential tool in life. Hopefully, it never entails violence, but if it’s self-defense, so be it. I believe the only way to reduce this bullying plague, is by giving kids the tools to feel secure with themselves and by helping parents teach lessons of empathy and empowerment. Parents must also use common sense when allowing their children to troll the Internet and engage in social media. You cannot legislate that.
I agree with Rener Gracie, a Jiu Jitsu instructor who teaches kids how to fend off bullies, who once told CNN, “We teach kids to fight fire with water. The more a child learns how to defend him or herself the more confident they become and the more confident they become the less likely they are to ever be targeted by a bully.”
It will be interesting to see the effects of Seth’s Law. Hopefully it will deter bullies. But I fear it will result in some startling cases that put young kids through the criminal justice meat grinder. If that happens our society will come out of this all the worse.