by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Bullying has become 2011’s white-hot sensation in schools, blogs and parent’s minds.
With good reason. The highly-publicized suicides of Massachusetts cyber victim Phoebe Prince  and Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi  have frightened parents across the country and prompted schools and universities to spotlight bullying and intervene aggressively. But bullying, as any kid knows, presents in intricate, complex packages that parents and school officials often cannot unwrap and disarm until it’s too late.
Asked to picture a bully, most of us imagine a physically imposing, angry, swaggering boy, or a socially adept “mean girl.” Asked to imagine victims, we think of quiet, physically weaker, less attractive social outcasts. But new research on bullies upends these traditional stereotypes, exposing less visible, more pernicious forms of psychological warfare where victims and perpetrators are harder to tell apart.
As reported recently in the New York Times , U.C. Davis researchers have conducted a series of studies, surveys, and yeoman’s social mapping to deconstruct patterns of friendships among 8th to 10th graders.
Surprisingly, they found that one third of teenagers are involved in aggressive bullying. Most kids in the middle of the social pack are subject to, and perpetrators of, bullying behavior in less obvious ways than kids at the very top and bottom of the popularity scale. Most teenage bullying is targeted at social rivals, not social outcasts. Social status is a ladder (to some, at least), meaning that to move up you need to target kids right above and next to you, and to stay popular you need to defend your position from kids at your level. This means, quite often, that you are bullied by your friends and that you bully your peers.
Ring true, anyone?
I remember vividly the dynamics of my 7th and 8th grade clique. We didn’t bother the girls on the outside of the clique. Why would we? They were no threat; the only bullying we inflicted was ignoring them. The girls we targeted most often – leaving Listerine in the locker of one with bad breath, slipping deodorant into the purse of another with body odor – were our own best friends. The girls I most feared were the ones whose bedrooms I knew as well as my own. In one stand-out gym class, my best friend convinced me she had cancer. Only after 24 hours of tears and frantic conversations did my pals let me know I’d been punked. Thanks, girlfriends.
Another provocative bit of research shows that dads’ roles in family life correlate with certain forms of bullying . New research coming out of Vanderbilt University suggests that the more time dads spend with kids, the less aggressively their children behave at school.
“Children's perception of how much time they spent with their fathers had the most impact on bullying behavior, such as being cruel to others, being disobedient at school, hanging around kids who get in trouble, having a very strong temper and not being sorry for misbehaving.”
The research began with the hypothesis that mothers' work hours would most likely impact whether children exhibited bullying behavior. (Thanks, dude – more guilt is just what we moms need.) However, the Vanderbilt researcher found that when fathers worked full time or overtime and children perceived that they did not spend enough time with their dads, bullying behavior increased. Mothers' work hours showed modest to no effect on bullying behavior. Aside from this info being inherently useful, I felt a huge sigh of relief – for once, moms are not society’s villains.
Stereotypes about moms, dads, wallflowers or bullies end up hurting the people they typecast. They also damage the culprits they gloss over. Bullying almost always reflects pain and insecurity, a childlike projection of inner agony onto others. Bizarre as it sounds, empathy for the bully is often part of the solution. As parents and caregivers, we can help our children and our schools the most by treating each child as an individual, and never leaping to conclusions about who’s the bully, who’s playing the victim, and who are the heroes in our children’s lives.
In a recent teacher-facilitated bullying dissection among the sixth grade girls at my children’s school, everyone who had ever been bullied was asked to raise her hand. Every girl in the class put her arm up.
The next question was harder to answer honestly: have you ever bullied someone else?
Bravely, every girl raised her hand. Except one. A cute, competitive athlete smack in the middle of the social pack, who had recently launched several transparent mean girl barbs. Everyone turned to look at her, staring until she reluctantly raised her hand too. Hands raised, the girls knew they were all in this together. I took their collective action to suggest the beginning of the end of bullying. In their class, for this moment in time, a brief reprieve.