NOT Child's Play

Welcome to format Free Fridays at, the one day a week when I break the format of answering your questions and I dispense that which we rarely welcome in life: Unsolicited advice.

Today I want to talk about a subject very close to my heart:  Bullying.  Some of you may recall that I wrote my dissertation on the topic of bullying.  If you’d like to read that dissertation, I’ll link to it here. I especially recommend it if you have insomnia.

I remember during one of the last meetings with my dissertation committee when a professor turned to me and asked, “So Darcy, how do you feel knowing that when your study is published, you’ll have taken a step towards making sure future adolescents don’t have to go through what you went through in high school?”  I sat stunned and silent.  I had never disclosed that I’d been a victim of bullying growing up.  And then I smiled and asked, “Do you suppose that every PhD student picks a dissertation topic that coincides with a personal struggle?”  Everyone in the room laughed.

I don’t like to talk about my personal struggles.  As a therapist I’m trained to deeply ponder my motivation for self-disclosures to ensure that they are always in the client’s best interest and not in a self-serving interest.  And although I use a fair amount of self-disclosure in my work with my clients, it’s always a stretch for me.  What comes naturally is pretending like I have my shit all worked out.  I do not, for the record, have my shit all worked out.

I can’t remember the first time I was bullied.  It started in the neighborhood long before I hit puberty and progressed to a new level of misery with each academic transition:  First to middle school and then to high school. I could blame it on being Jewish in a predominately catholic culture.  I could say that my A.D.D. resulted in me having under-developed social skills, making me a prime target for bullies.  I could say that other girls were jealous of my DNA.  The reasons don’t matter much.

What matters is that my school created an environment of tolerance and permissiveness that allowed it to continue and thrive, virtually unchecked.  The bathroom walls and the red brick walls of the school’s exterior were often spray-painted with slurs about students (of which I was often included) and swastikas/other anti-Semitic statements.  The school did very little.  It was the 80’s and a time in history when adults believed that it was a right of passage to take a beating as a student.

Adding insult to injury was the passivity of my schoolmates.  The school did not educate or teach us how to create an environment that did not tolerate bullying.  We did not know what the term positive peer pressure meant.  We didn’t understand the bystander phenomenon.  I don’t blame anyone other than a culture that had not been challenged to change.  In fact, I didn’t think such a culture existed.

My first job out of graduate school was at a private high school, which is where I first witnessed an academic environment that had a no tolerance for bullying philosophy.  And it really is a philosophy as opposed to a set of rules which are imposed on people.   The tenets tapped into a belief system that spanned the culture of the students and the parents.  I learned that bullies were natural leaders whose strengths could be redirected.   I witnessed an administration that took it upon itself to ‘meddle’ in the drama of its students if it meant preempting a student from being socially outcast or from being physically attacked, both of which were daily occurrences in my public school tenure.  I walked hallways where students were safe, regardless of their differences.  Bus rides were supervised so that the daily commute didn’t morph into 30 minutes of torture, as it was when I went to school.  They had, in fact, created an environment where students could focus on learning.

Yesterday morning I opened my email to view a video of a bullying victim who body slammed his perpetrator in the course of defending himself.  There has been tons of speculation about the wisdom and morality of the victim’s decision to react to violence with violence.

It is easy to weigh in on this issue as adults when memories of high school and middle school are distant and romanticized.  Even more so if you’ve never been ‘that kid’ whose school day was more often than not laced with moments of terror, humiliation, emotional abuse and physical abuse.  If you’ve never sat in a class watching the clock on the wall tick to mark the end of the period with a knot in your stomach because in the two minutes between periods you’re likely to experience the worst examples of humanity that you’ll ever have to endure, stay quiet in this debate.  Bite your tongue.  You’ve not walked in the shoes of a victim.

I don’t condone violence but I will say this:  Until we adopt a universal philosophy of no tolerance for bullying, until students are trained to take responsibility as bystanders for intervening instead of behaving passively, we must teach children that it is OK to defend themselves and to protect their bodies.  In my opinion, the student who videotaped this occurrence (linked here) should be the most harshly punished.  Not only did he do nothing, but his comments no doubt fueled the self-righteousness of the perpetrator.