Every day there are children who go to school in dread of what will happen when they cross paths with their bully. Though this is nothing new, and though we all have stories of things we’ve seen or experienced, we shouldn’t lazily brush it aside by claiming that is merely a part of growing up. Just as adults have the right to be safe in their workplace environment, so too do children at school; it should, therefore, be effectively addressed. Reprimands should be firm, and recourse should be clear. While the issue of bullying is indeed taken more seriously than before, I fear that our efforts are somewhat too focused on the victim-predator dynamic; I fear that they are unintentionally weakening the development of the self-confidence and strength of character that comes as a result of asserting one’s self.
Definitions of bullying are necessarily wide in scope. There are, after all, innumerable ways of physically harming and of psychologically intimidating others. While the physical violence component is relatively clear, and perhaps more easily dealt with, the psychological component exists in a thick haze of fog, where things are not so clear. In spite of this difference, the two components are understood by many to be one and the same, and since all cases of bullying must be reported, far too many children automatically turn to authority figures to solve their problems.
In addition to learning that bullying is wrong and deserving of reprimand, children on the receiving end of even the slightest verbal offense learn that they are victims, and that they must immediately report their status to the authorities. As well as having their problem solved on their behalf, they may also be coddled, pitied, and sheltered. Some have carried this lesson into adulthood, as evidenced by the increasing number of people who call the police for receiving insults from former friends on Facebook, making them victims of criminal harassment and intimidation in their own minds.
In a free society there is no such thing as the right to not to be insulted or offended. Though free speech is more effective when practiced in a spirit of respect for others and for contrary opinions, it is unreasonable to expect that emotional outbursts will not at times occur, or that contempt for your thoughts, opinions, and ideas will not be expressed. One merely has to read the comments section below an online article or video to see the extent to which depraved minds and thoughtless individuals express insult and offense, especially from behind the cowardly cloak of online anonymity.
In addition to appropriately dealing with the bully for moderate and serious offences, we should encourage children to deal with the less serious offences on their own. For them this may mean being assertive and confrontational; it may mean letting things slide; and it may even mean responding with acts of kindness. Whatever the case may be, this should be done with the knowledge and understanding that the right to not be offended simply does not exist, that the world is indeed full of bullies, and that dealing with adversity builds strength and character.
In this age of instant communication, where there are few filters, where people can hide in cyberspace, and where anyone can be made a target of smearing, it is more important than ever to ensure that our children develop thick skin, self-confidence, and strength of character. Though they should strive to live in an upright and respectable fashion, they should not be overly concerned with what people say or think about them.
Indeed, we are stronger than we think. Words from our peers need not be so hurtful and destructive. By building strength of character in our children, and by investing in their resilience, we will better equip and prepare them to face the bullies of this world.
(Kevin Richard is a freelance Quebec journalist and Discourse Online contributor. This article first appeared in The Sherbrooke Record, an English language daily serving Quebec’s Eastern Townships.)