October 21, 2010

Bullying and Sexual Identity- A Parenting Perspective

As you might expect, I read a lot of other mothers' blogs.  A topic that has been much discussed this week is the recent rash of teen suicides.  So many teens in the last few months have committed suicide as a result of anti-gay bullying.  Not all of these kids were even gay, they were simply perceived as gay by their bullying peers.

You would be amazed what the mommy-blogosphere is saying.  One of the moms I read has an eight year old who is becoming a bully.  She's begun making all sorts of excuses, saying that bullying is really a result of a very confident child trying to contrast their own success against obvious failure.  That bullies are more popular, that they are more successful in life.  That the children who are bullied make themselves victims.  I can't even begin to tell you how much this view shocks and terrifies me.  I was bullied as a child, mercilessly.  I remember vividly contemplating suicide when I was eight and a half years old, because of how cruel the other children were.  And while that had nothing to do with my sexuality, it had to do with other elements of my personality I was just as incapable of changing.  I was teased about being Jewish, about being a vegetarian, about having glasses, about having curly hair... anything that bullies could come up with to use against me.  And I was not alone.  Children are a cruel lot once you get them in packs.

She's begun making all sorts of excuses, saying that bullying is really a result of a very confident child trying to contrast their own success against obvious failure.  That bullies are more popular, that they are more successful in life.  That the children who are bullied make themselves victims.

Another disturbing bit of reading I've done is by a mom who's blog is intended to debunk parenting news.  Her argument is that these kids are too young to be thinking about such issues as their own sexuality anyway, and the best thing that the adults in their lives can do is to discourage them from worrying about it in the first place.

Has she never been a teenager?  Can she honestly not remember the CONSTANT OBSESSION that teenagers have with sex?  They want to have it, they're frightened to have it, they want to know who's having it, when, how...  Take a look at any video store or library, teenagers want to watch movies and read books about other teenagers talking about or having sex, they want to learn everything possible about it, and figure out what sort of role sex is going to play in their lives.  There's constant speculation about who's doing what with whom, regardless of the orientation.  High schools have always been and will always be rife with speculation about which girls are easy, which boys are all talk and which have actually "gone all the way."

Not surprisingly, the kids who are the cruelest during those teen years are the ones that are least comfortable with their own sexuality.  Girls who feel demeaned in their own sexual experiences are the fastest to label other girls "slut," boys who are the most frightened of their own potentially homosexual urges the first in line to shout slurs or beat up a boy they might see as effeminate, even if they haven't outed themselves as gay.

Can she honestly not remember the CONSTANT OBSESSION that teenagers have with sex?

We as a culture are beginning to understand more and more that our assumptions about what it means to be gay are not true.  Two thirds of Americans are ready to welcome gays into the military, because we understand that they're not limp wristed girly men who run from a fight, but patriots- no different from any other patriot that wants to serve their country.

But the fact of the matter is that kids are killing themselves because of bullies.  Now.  They're not only being bullied for being gay, but homosexuality is one of the last bastions of fundamental characteristics that many adults seem to think is still WRONG.  In most of this country, you can't bully a kid for being black, or Catholic, or a girl... but homosexuality is another story.  How many of those homophobic bullies have a parent who would support them if they went to Prom with somebody of the same gender?  How many of those parents would try to accept their child's confession that they believe they were born with the wrong reproductive organs?

I've spoken with M several times about what we would do if one of our girls was being bullied, and what we would do if they were bullying.  I know I would cry bitter tears for any child my child victimized.  I also know what I would tell my girls if somebody bullied them.  And it's something I desperately want to tell to all these teenagers, gay, straight, or just plain odd, who face the bullying daily:

Assault, hate crimes, these are the things children get away with in the name of youthful exuberance.

This is not about you.  They're not making fun of you or hurting you because of anything true- and if it is true, it's only a coincidence.  They've decided to make you a target and that's not fair, but it means nothing.  They could tell the other kids that you're an alien from Mars, and get the other kids to beat you up for being an alien from Mars.  It doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, it doesn't matter if you're tall or short or smart or stupid, they'll pick any reason out of the air and they will bully you for it, but it does not define you.  You are not what they say you are, and what they're saying you are is unworthy of their respect.  Nothing more meaningful than that.  You are a human being, and you're a kid, and that means that life is not fair and that life is hard, but you will all get a little older, and this will end.  These horrible people who make you feel ashamed to be you, they'll turn into regular old adults, and you'll be a regular old adult, and they won't dare say these things.  Because when adults do this, it's called a hate crime.  You might not be able to stop them, but the end is in sight.  All you have to do is grow up.

The last thing I would say is that I am so sorry I couldn't do more to make this a better world for you.  For my daughters, for every kid that's bullied past the breaking point, I wish to God I could have made this a better world for you.

I plead with all of you parents out there, please don't turn a blind eye to facts of your child's life.  If you child is a bully, don't ignore it.  Don't make excuses.  Because if this was behavior an adult was engaging in, they would be in jail.  Assault, hate crimes, these are the things children get away with in the name of youthful exuberance.  Would you stand by your adult child in court as they were prosecuted for beating up homosexuals, telling the judge and their victims that it's just an overabundance of confidence?  Would you tell your twenty two year old daughter that she really doesn't need to think about whether or not she's a lesbian because it's time to get a job and focus on her career?  No.  Because once your kids are adults, you have to accept that their adult behavior is largely out of your control.

It doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, it doesn't matter if you're tall or short or smart or stupid, they'll pick any reason out of the air and they will bully you for it, but it does not define you.

But your child's behavior is NOT out of your control.  You can make it right.  You can at least TRY to make it right.

I hope against hope that when my girls are grown, they will have the freedom to love whoever they choose.  Sure, part of me wants my kids to have the same sorts of experiences that I had- and those were largely heterosexual experiences.  But I also want them to be happy, and most of all true to themselves.  Because what kind of happiness is it to live a lie?

Part of me would genuinely rather my girls were bullied than that they were bullying others, because I just don't know how I would fix that problem.  I hope I never have to learn.  But I do hope they never have to endure the bullying that I did, or that those poor dead teenagers did.  I hope that in the next decade, the rest of humanity wises up a bit and realizes that children are people too, and that it is NOT acceptable for people to treat other people as anything less than an equal human being.


  1. This was an insightful and important post, but having witnessed both sides in my own kids (you should meet them!) I can't share one sentiment in the last paragraph:

    "Part of me would genuinely rather my girls were bullied than that they were bullying others, because I just don't know how I would fix that problem."

    If your child is bullying, you can discipline them however you might discipline them for something else. As a parent, that's your job, and sometimes it might even work. But when your child is on the receiving end, you have few options. Track down and punish someone else's child? Pick a fight with the parents? Call the police? Move to a new neighborhood? There are no good options, no good way to make it better for your bullied child. Maybe it's just a stereotypically male attitude, but I'd rather have a problem I can try to solve.

  2. When I was younger, one of my older sisters was verbally abused repetedly by boys in her high school. My parents didn't tell me about this for years, but apparently it was so bad they took the other boy (the main bully) to court. His father was some big shot attorney who tried to put thethe blame on my sister for her treatment. My sister who would get stress migraines weekly in high school. My sister who was a tiny, thin, smart young woman who only wanted to go by unnoticed. It was her fault that this boy threatened to rape her and cause her to run in fear to our parents.

    She was lucky that our parents saw the futile effort it would have been to try a reason with this boy's parents. She was even more lucky that the judge told the attorney father to shut up & ordered that if anything happened to my sister, if she so much as got bumped by accident in the hallways this bully would be facing jail.

    My mom tells me that my sister went into that court terrified and cowering, but she left walking 10 feet tall.

    The point is, we can complain & be outraged about the bullies our kids face, but the teachers & principals are juust as afraid of those bullies parents as our kids are of the bullies.

    It sickens me to say this, but we can't just be content to talk to the parents, teachers or the media, we have to make examples of the bullie. Take them to court and have them serve time. Let them see what future their bullying has for them, let them see that there is no power in being a bully, in terrorizing their victims, because they sure as hell aren't developing any empathy anytime soon.

  3. i have to agree with Teacher... why is something that would get you jailed as an adult, acceptable (and i would venture to say condoned)because you are a teen?

  4. I have seen the parents of bullies accept and condone their own child's behavior. I feel sorry for those children.

    What you do is teach your child and their friends not to take it. If they verbally defend another child who is being bullied, the bullying will normally stop. If they are confident, they won't be victimized. You stop the bullying by going to the child's class and saying "How can we fix this? What can you do?"

  5. Hey Supermommy. I think you're referring to my post above. I wrote about the scientific evidence that teens who identify/think of themselves as gay are twice as likely to think about and attempt suicide. I'm a psychologist so I'm no stranger to the topic of teen suicide, a very real and serious public health issue. My point is not that kids should not think about their sexuality or that parents should discourage any talk/thoughts about sex, that's ridiculous, of course I remember being a teen, of course they think about sex and their bodies frequently. It's developmentally appropriate, necessary.

    Instead I think we place too much of an emphasis on labels, we adults and teens even more so. I think it's beneficial to encourage kids to not think of themselves in such strict terms (nor others) whatever the category (jock/geek/slut, ect). I've always said this about whatever the label. In fact, there is plenty of research evidence that it's much healthier for kids to think of themselves in terms of their behavior and not their identities. Also, I don't think kids need to decide who they are for the rest of their lives. Be it their career objectives, where they'd like to buy a house, the optimal number of children they'd like to have, or sexual orientation. Of course some do it quite naturally on their own at that age. And we need to support them. But that doesn't mean we need to encourage others to figure out exactly who they are or choose their sexual orientation. Especially when there are some serious consequences for those who do, yes, bc of a hostile environment lacking support.

    In my post I targeted our cultural tendency to focus on the self, that in many ways is quite unhealthy from a psychological perspective, for one thing, leading to more depression as well as lack of empathy for others. So I mused quite generally if we should be focusing more on others and the world around us rather than ourselves. Sorry if this got misinterpreted because it's an important topic and like I said earlier, I always suspect the most self-righteous amongst us.

  6. Dr. Palumbo- thank you so much for your comment. I understand your point much better, and I agree. Labels are generally hurtful, and I believe it is a parents' responsibility to help their children come to terms with their identity without forcing labels on themselves.

    I think it just boils down to one thing- childhood is HARD, and having been through it doesn't make guiding anyone else any easier.

  7. I wrote about this a couple weeks ago. Parents that make excuses for bullies are frightening- would they make those excuses for a child that victimized their child? Hell no. GRrr...anyway, I guess we just have to move forward and hang on to each other, or "be excellent to each other".

  8. Very thoughtful and an interesting read. I constantly think about how I will raise my future children when it comes to these questions.

  9. I have to say that I would rather have my kids be bullied than be bullies-and since both my girls were bullied through JH and HS I have been there. There are some things you can do. And things we all should be doing. I recommend Davis' book Empowering Bystanders. I also think my book Revenge of the Dorkoids-3-6 grade fiction-is a fun read they segue into bullying discussions that can help your children stand up for themselves or others -behaviors that can lower bullying in schools by a whopping 50%.

    FYI my daughter who is 31 still deals with certain sensitivities from her bullying, interestingly enough they come out at me the most. But in spite of being dyslexic she has 2 Masters degrees and is finishing her Doctorate this year.

  10. What a great post! I write a parenting blog and would love to either host this as a guest blog or provide a link. Please let me know!

    All the best,
    Meryl Jaffe PhD

  11. This is EXACTLY why we need to widen our scope when attempting to solve the bullying problem. Adult attitudes and behaviors are a real issue, too. And a contributing factor to the behavior we see in children/teens.

    There is a pervasive attitude in this country that is it OK to attack someone who is different, or believes different things. Just look at our current political environment. It's beyond disturbing.

  12. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I always thought I'd have to deal with bullies at some point and it was something I was deep down terrified of... but then I had to face something I never dreamed of... my daughter, at just 5 years old, was the bully. And she was deeply cruel to her classmates, her friends. I was shocked and appalled at what I learned she was doing in the classroom. Thankfully, the school was quick to alert us and eager to work with us to fix the problem.

    In addition, I've written about my feelings on bullying and what gay teens are going through- and what adults need to be willing to do about it. If you want to read about all of those things, I tagged them all "Bully." Click over, start at the last post and work your way up (3 posts).


    I understand that I would rather have my child BE the bully because there is a specific course of problem solving action to take. Things are more up in the air if you have to deal with being bullied. But it BROKE my heart in ways I never dreamed- I never thought I'd feel such bitter disappointment in my 5 year old.

    I'd rather bullying just not be an issue anymore.



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