It takes two to make a bully

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Kimonos + Katanas = AWESOMEI was reading bedtime stories the other night and came across a gem by Richard Scarry in the 365 Bedtime Stories compendium, which I think is incredibly illustrative of the way we dealt with bullies in the past and the way we deal with them now.

In the short story The Rudiments, a boy is bullied in the schoolyard and goes home to his father. His father, knowing how the rules of the schoolyard go, teaches his son the rudiments of boxing. Later on, the bully returns to the boy and gets a bloodied nose for his efforts. They make up afterwards and become schoolyard friends.

How much our culture has changed in the 35 years since Scarry’s book was written. How little personal responsibility we are willing to take, and how little personal responsibility we encourage our children to take for their own safety, welfare, and confidence. I’m reminded of a quote from my teacher’s teacher, Stephen K. Hayes: it takes two to make a bully – the bully and a willing victim. Most bullies are folks who are not looking for a fair fight. They’re looking for someone to use. If it’s obvious you’re not going to roll over and give in, they’ll typically move on to someone easier, someone who is willing to play the role they want them to play.

When I look at the “epidemic” of schoolyard bullying, there is blame to be assigned, unquestionably. It’s not the school’s fault. It’s not the bullies’ fault. It’s not the child’s fault.

The blame squarely falls on the parents of the bullied child.

Now, just to be clear, the bully has as much responsibility for the act of bullying as the victim, but the reality of life is that there will always be bullies, jackasses, profoundly clueless and deeply irresponsible people, and just plain idiots. When they do something stupid, it has an impact, unquestionably, but you have little to no control over them. You have total control over yourself and how you choose to respond, and a bullied child has that same control and responsibility. That’s where parents are falling down hard now – they’re taking away (or never giving) their kids that power.

Every time you intercede on your child’s behalf or appeal to the school system, every time you negotiate for more impotent rules to attempt to govern the behavior of other people’s kids, every time you whisk your child away from an unpleasant situation without encouraging them to solve it for themselves, every time you give away your child’s power to stand up for themselves to a teacher, monitor, lawyer, principal, you make them that much weaker and more vulnerable to bullying, especially when they’re very young. It’s akin to blasting your immune system with antibiotics every time you get a runny nose. The immune system’s ability to fight back is never tested and strengthened, and when some serious illness comes along, your body completely caves in. The same exact principle is at work every time you swoop in to rescue your child.

Stop coddling your child and interceding on their behalf, and teach them how to fight back by whatever means are available. Enroll them in a martial arts class. Teach them how to network and be an incredible friend-maker so that other kids in the schoolyard will ally with your child, even if they’re physically not able to fight back. Teach them most of all how to stand up for themselves against all those who would do them harm, because if you don’t, they will be permanent victims for life.

When I was a kid, I got a healthy dose of bullying in the schoolyard, especially being small, short, and not especially athletic. Instead of just giving into it or crying to my parents about it, I took action, finding friends willing to help me stand up against it and finding my own, very unique ways to fight back against it. Later on, I got involved in the martial arts to strengthen my physical abilities to protect myself and the people I cared about, but most important, my parents (especially my dad) encouraged me to stand up for myself however I could from very early on, and true to form, the bullies went elsewhere, for easier opportunities.

Bullying changes as you get older, but it never stops. The physical acts of violence might diminish, perhaps, but there are just as many bullies in your cubicle farm now as there are on your playground of yesterday. The tormentor who made fun of you being tall, short, black, white, fat, thin, whatever back then is the one who gossips against you now, sending memos to undercut you, makes discriminatory comments behind your back, and is working to sabotage the people around him or her because they can.

If your child never learns how to stand up and punch someone in the face (literally or metaphorically) from very early on, then they will endure it for the rest of their lives, because bullies and asshats are a perpetual constant. Wouldn’t you rather give your child the confidence to escape or stop a bad situation when they’re very young, so that they learn it’s okay to stand up for themselves, that it’s not okay to be a victim, for the rest of their lives?

What if your child became so strong, so confident, so powerful in their own right with your guidance that they not only stood up for themselves, but stood up for others and were able to make their own schoolyard world a little brighter, more cheerful, more safe? Wouldn’t that be amazing? It all starts with your role as a parent to help build that strong personality, that strength of character and confidence, that iron will to act and not waver in the face of wrongness.

Incidentally, those are also the attributes of the people we call heroes.

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30 responses to “It takes two to make a bully”

  1.  Avatar

    I agree with your perspective Chris!

    I have often wondered why we adults don’t allow our children to learn to be more self reliant, especially in the face of bullies.

    Its easy to say “punching someone in the nose to stop a kid from bullying you is never the answer.” Unless of course it is the answer.

  2.  Avatar

    Totally agree. Brilliant article. Not every part of childhood is fun… especially learning the hard lessons of life. Fighting is an inherent part of the human condition. Those who fail to learn this lesson early fail in life.

    The struggles we face with childhood bullies, adult homophobics, and political Islamaphobics reflect that our society is failing to learn the lesson of how to fight.

    As a nation, we are soft, overweight, overly protective of our children, afraid to take risks, and easily intimidated by others that might be different from us.

    I want to live in a world where differences are celebrated and people are confident. Such a world is far more peaceful. Ironically, such peace might start in 3rd grade by giving the bully a bloody nose.

    I love your advice and have posted in on FB and Twitter… no doubt a firestorm of controversy will erupt.

    Now off to the boxing gym ; )

  3. Up until now I’ve enjoyed your blog. However after this post I will no longer subscribe. I found it appalling that you assign half the blame to the victim and the victim’s parents. So do you also say that rape victims deserve half the blame because they didn’t learn self-defense? Or that her parents were 50% to blame? I’m a big believer in personal responsibility, however I also believe that there are truly nasty people in this world. In addition there are those who are not as mentally capable. My sister is learning disabled and was bullied in school. My parents tried to give her the skills to cope, but it just wasn’t possible. The REAL problems is the bully and his / her parents. Finally following your corollary to the so-called real world. Will you punch a co-worker in the nose to solve your problems?

    1. Rape is a different problem, and not one I’m tackling in the context of dealing with bullying. Is there an element of blame to be assigned in every crime? No. Is there an important lesson in childhood of learning that you should actively oppose being a victim (and teaching your child the same)? Yes. Absolutely.

      There are unquestionably nasty people in this world, people who want nothing more than to watch the world burn. Some of them are just plain f’ing nuts. Those are precisely the people who need that very early childhood education with a bloodied nose that there are some lines you do not cross. Perhaps if enough people did that, they’d be dissuaded from wreaking havoc and larger harm. Perhaps not.

      In the corollary to the real world you missed the point. If people still “bully” in the workplace using non-physical means, there are equally non-physical responses that are appropriate. Will I deliver the corporate workplace equivalent of a punch in the nose if someone’s doing that? Absolutely, and I have. I’d encourage others to do so as well, because better you get a strongly worded memo than have the man with the red stapler burn the whole place down.

      1.  Avatar

        Chris: Check out my FB wall… I posted a link to your blog and it has caused a firestorm of controversy…

  4. Larry Lawfer Avatar
    Larry Lawfer

    Reading the 3 comments before I see there are two for your approach and one against. Count me as one of those who do not agree with you. Aside from the mentally challenged and physically disabled who do not possess the ability to study martial arts as you have for many years, there are others in our society who do not possess the personality to be confrontational in the manner you are suggesting. It is up to the people like you, like me and like us to take care of those people.
    While I fully embrace personal responsibility with the same zeal and vigor as you do, I also understand the problem from a perspective outside my interest in war and martial arts. I think you miss the full mark on this one Chris.

    1. I’m not saying the martial arts or even physical retaliation is the sole answer. It was one of the answers for me, but not the only one. Without getting into too many public details, there’s more than one way to cause someone harm besides bopping ’em in the face with your knuckles, like reputational damage in the schoolyard.

      Equally true is that you can choose to ally yourself with equally strong people and have that network of friends to protect you, a strategy that also works. But ultimately, all of the strategies rely on you taking initiative for yourself, and for you as a parent to instill that same will to act in your child instead of passively accepting the situation or swooping in to rescue them instead of helping them formulate a way to respond.

      I agree there will always be those who need protection from evil. Paladins, priests, warriors, and guardians have filled those roles over the centuries in our societies. However, there are far more people who can make at least some stand themselves against maliciousness, and the place to learn that is very early on in the schoolyard, long before more grown-up problems introduce themselves.

  5. As I expected, many commenters have conflated ‘blaming the victim’ with the idea that a victims response to wrong-doing before and after the fact has a role to play in a bullying situation.

    However, there’s alot more to this issue than merely telling the victim to take responsibility for themselves. In North America we have a highly individualized culture that makes ‘take care of yourself’ immediately appealing and acceptable. My experience is that it is not enough.

    In order for people to ‘fight back’ they need the emotional and (sometimes) physical support of their peers, family and community. When people are bullied (or people who experience any kind of harm) for what appears to them as no reason they begin to doubt their very basic values. Especially when there are a group of kids cheering on the fight/laughing/being mean, it’s hard to understand that you are doing no wrong.

    The same applies to the bully him/herself. The reaction of others plays a serious role in their behavior. They may be bullying because they feel slighted, or threatened or whatever. If the bully feels that he/she has no community backing, he/she also may lash out all the more fiercely because it is a whole society that he/she feels he/she is fighting, not just the victim.

    In short, the problem of bullying is less about individual choice and more about community connection. For one, I advocate Restorative Justice processes to help deal broadly with bullying. When you participate in these things, you end up learning that we all have a little bit of bully in us. Merely punishing the bully or resolving the issue for the victim absolutely does not work. The best process is a collaborative one, where everyone understands the broader problem and works together to solve it (including determining the appropriate actions that the ‘bully’ must take to repair the harm done.)

    1. I think that’s a great perspective, Ryan. I write from the perspective of doing whatever is under YOUR control first, because that’s the stuff you can make changes on. That’s where we have to start.

      1. I’d agree with that. You can wallow, or you can do nothing. That said – a good first action is finding support where you think you can get it. And by support I do not mean someone to fight your own battles.

  6. “The blame squarely falls on the parents of the bullied child.” – You have got to be kidding me. I won’t even attempt to mount an argument against this, it’s just *that* ludicrous. I suppose assault victims are at fault too? Even if you’re right, what happens if the bully decides to take his aggression to the next level? Then what? Are we to allow situations to escalate just so kids can “deal with it themselves?”

    Speaking of which, I know of 2 bullied kids who decided to stand up for themselves. They went to a school called Columbine, maybe you’ve heard of it …

    1. No, assault victims are not. See the earlier comments – I’m specifically talking about bullying very early on, not adult crimes. What’s at the heart of this is that as a parent, you do NOT want your child to simply rely on you to fix everything.

      As for Columbine and attempts like it, that’s not standing up so much as it is snapping after not being able to do anything about it for years and years. Imagine if those two kids had learned much earlier on to do something, to act, far earlier in the bullying cycle.

      I know you disagree, but thanks for taking the time to comment anyway.

  7. 1. bold of you to brave writing about this topic….

    2. do you have children? are you a father? i ask b/c your perspective may be vastly different if you have your own children or care for children.

    3. i was bullied every year from the moment i was 5 til at least 12. for different reasons: glasses, chubby, parents divorced, lost weight (they made fun of that), too tall, got chubby again, etc. was a social dweeb, then wasn’t on and on.

    not my time to share my story except i’ll say this: fighting back didn’t shut the bullies up.
    braving them down w/ ignoring, showing their actions weren’t touching me and ultimately forgiveness did.
    i’m not kumbaya-ing here

    i’m being compassionate beyond the surface.

    bullies are often empty hearted souls. esp. children bullying.

    chalk masters of education up to one good lesson (okay a few): every child wants love.
    bullies have learned to get positive reinforcement for crap behavior.

    that’s sad.

    we do the same thing. we reward attention to the most wrong doers. the right doers are hardly applauded b/c it’s expected.

    that’s sad too.

    point: what squelched the people bullying me was not retaliating…not fighting back or telling on them…but internally and outwardly forgiving them..even when that meant saying and acting: no matter what you do it’s not touching me.

    meanest kid ever to me?
    30 years later apologized on facebook to me.
    why: he now has teens of his own and can’t believe how he acted.

    i went thru hell, surely, but i wonder where i’d be if i’d only practiced eye for eye.

    something motivated your writing this.
    your thoughts on it may change whether/not you have children.
    if we all wanna be loved, better to show kudos to those doing it right than fight against those not.

    i respect your opinions. thanks for braving this topic.

    1. 1. I had a perspective, so I wrote about it.

      2. I do, two of them. It’s not something I talk about much online or ever show pictures because they’re not old enough to make that decision themselves.

      3. Your point about empty hearted souls is a great one, and it’s one of the reasons why I don’t ever tackle the side of the bully or their parents in the article. For most of my own childhood experience, I found that the bullies were often in turn bullied by their own parents. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

      In order to do what you did, to endure, to have that immoveable heart, you had to draw on some strength. Strength of character, strength of sense of self… where did that come from?

  8. I think it is significant that the example of the successful treatment of bullying here is taken from a children’s book. In a children’s book, stories end the way we want them to, and do not have to be supported by evidence or research.

    You are sharing a perspective here, and you don’t pretend that it is based on evidence, or is in any way scientific. I would suggest you look into whether or not there is research on bullying that contradicts your opinions, and why it might be, if you are interested in exploring your opinion further.

    I think the story of the bullied individual that rises up against his bully is deeply culturally situated, and it’s one we all love to hear, but it’s one that is based more often on myth than reality.


    1. You’re quite correct. This is my opinion, and it’s opinion only.

  9. Molly Porter Avatar
    Molly Porter

    Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were bullied and fought back. You know, for a child with little critical thinking ability or possible mental illness, this is where this line of thought can lead. I think you need to be more responsible with your words.

    1. Quite right. I do not advocate parents being helicopter parents, nor do I advocate laissez faire parenting either. It’s the job of the parents to provide that guidance. Eric and Dylan had neither.

  10. So when, in high school, a bunch of kids followed me from class to class taunting me, it was my fault? When they physically blocked me from entering my classroom to heckle me, it was because I didn’t punch them in the nose? All of the emotional damage I endured and resulting paranoia was because I didn’t decide to take on 5 or 6 guys (some of whom were bigger than me) with the help of the zero friends who came to my aid?

    Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Yes, it is important for parents to teach their kids how to handle bullying. Part of that *is* coming to parents and/or teachers to let us know about the bullying that is going on. And punching the kid in the nose is *not* an effective answer. Especially not if the bullies gang up on the bullied.

    The reality of the situation is that being bullied hinders your social development. You are less likely to socialize with other people for fear that they will bully you. People are less likely to socialize with you for fear of being included in the next round of bullying. You are cut off from all peer support and made to feel like an outcast. In that situation, I, as a parent, am supposed to tell my kid “Helping you would just be coddling you. Stand up and face the entire school all by yourself”? Sorry, but any parent who would do that simply doesn’t understand the realities of bullying in my book.

    1. It wasn’t your fault. If we assign blame, it’s to your parents for not earlier on giving you the resources you needed to be effective at countering them. Why did zero friends come to your aid? Why not 5 or 10 or 50? What skills besides punching someone in the nose would have made a difference for you if you had them at the time?

      To the last point, no. you’re not supposed to do that either. That’s missing the point; laissez faire parenting is as equally ineffective as helicopter parenting. You’re supposed to help your child figure out what resources they do have to mitigate the situation. People are people, bullies included. What weapons of influence could you use if physical retaliation is not practical or possible?

  11. […] to write about my weekend.  The things I did with my boys and stuff.  But then I read this blog post and suddenly those other topics can […]

  12. […] with bullies when your child is being bullied. There are many opinions out there I agree with, and some of which I respectfully do not agree with for my own family, but it is everyone’s right to have their […]

  13. I understand what you are saying Chris, when you say that the victim is partially to blame. I have taken on the mantra in my life – “you cannot changes others, only your reaction to them.”

    So I do think that parents do need to encourage their children to stand up to bullies, as long as those children are capable, and ready to do so.

    However, I also think that some children may not be ready, or mentally able to stand up in the many ways that might be suggested to them. I say this due to another factor – personality.

    If you’ve never done any reading on personality typing, I would encourage you to do so – specifically on the MBTI – which is a test that indicates 16 different personality types. The rarest of these is the INFJ. I can’t describe it in too much detail here, but the INFJ is Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging. Essentially they are the extreme sensitives, the idealist thinkers (think Gandhi). Much research has been done into personality types and it may be something we are born with, or partially born with and partially nurtured from our parents.

    So when you tell someone who is an idealist introvert – especially a child – they have to learn to change their reaction to a bully – the natural reaction is – “it’s not fair, it’s not the way it’s supposed to work.” And that certainly is true. But for some people, especially children, it can be extremely difficult to just “turn the other cheek” or “stand up for yourself” because it simply is not in their nature. Because of this, feelings of resentment against the situation, and the people telling them HOW to behave can build up, feelings that “no one understands me.” Parents may not even understand their own children.

    That being said – I’m going to tell you that this WAS me in 8th grade. No matter what I did, a bully tormented me every day, relentlessly. I tried ignoring him, I tried standing up to him (to the degree that I could, because I was a VERY timid person, and I guess I still am to a degree) Fighting him – well –
    he was much bigger and stronger than I – just seemed like an imsurmountable option for someone like me. And so – I was kept in a place of fear. As a last resort, he was called to the principal’s office, and it didn’t help either. I tried EVERYTHING I was supposed to do, to absolutely no avail Chris. This kid would NOT leave me alone.

    I felt such utter frustration at the situation, one day when I came home, I was so distraught, I put both my arms through the plate glass window in the storm door on my house.

    This kid lived a block away. So you know what happened? My parents called the police – and had them BRING THE KID TO SEE ME BEING BANDAGED UP. Bullies are destructive Chris. And this kid had to see the utter destruction he had wreaked on me to finally stop. It was only at this point that he stopped.

    So as a victim who went through that situation Chris – I’m going to disagree with you that victims are half the problem – because often, OFTEN bullies don’t give a fucking crap how much you do any of the “stuff” you’re supposed to do.

    Now maybe if I HAD been a stronger person, things MIGHT have been different, I don’t know. But what I know is that you can change your reactions, only to the point in which you can work within your own personality and ideals, which are often pre-built into your brain’s wiring. After that, you can’t do anymore.

    Now – I think this post was prompted by the heightened conversation about bullying that has come about due to the Tyler Clementi situation. Essentially, what you are saying then is that Tyler Clementi was in part to blame for his suicide if I am reading you correctly. Tyler should have stood up to the asshats who did that to him, right? He should have told them off! Told them to get out of his private life and never do anything like that again. Instead, he felt such anguish that these people could do something so horribly inhumane to him, that he took his own life. I know what he was feeling, Because I was there that day that I put my arms through that window.

    I still have the scars on my arms by the way, which remind me every day to try and be strong against bullies. But I am still who I am Chris.


  14. This is great advice, if you’re living in 1956. If you’re living in 2010, it’s incredibly naive, and courting tragedy.

    Violence breeds violence. Maybe once upon a time it was enough to show you could throw a punch, but not anymore. I didn’t grow up in 1956 – I grew up and went to school in the 90s. There were kids whose parents taught them that taking a swing at a bully would put an end to it once and for all. And they were right. At the end of the year, towards the end of the yearbook, there would be a lovely tribute to the kid in question.

    Bullies today don’t run away and lick their wounds. They wait for your kid after school and take a baseball bat to the back of his head. If he happens to hit the right guy, it’ll be a whole delegation from the local chapter of the Bloods or Crips who wait for him after school and take turns. When the bully gets hit, his street cred is damaged, his honor among the other thieves is tarnished, and his pride is wounded. The only way to restore it is to take revenge, exponentially.

    They’re your kids. Teach them what you want. But take out a life insurance policy first.

  15. There’s a very fine line between being a bully and becoming the bully, Christopher. While we all want to be able to defend ourselves and stand up for what’s right, turning people into powerful weapons themselves is not the answer.

    I studied martial arts – I have my brown belt in karate, and I know the respect for others it instills in you, as well as the strength and confidence it can give as well. But I’ve also seen scared kids turn into bullying jackasses when they feel that power and confidence.

    You’re making an effort to offer a solution, which is commendable. I’m just not sure your solution is the right one.

    1. I wholly agree with you. Power can be incredibly corrupting. Hopefully – and I’m not naive enough to believe this is the case often enough – with the study of martial arts also comes the tempering of character.

    2. I wholly agree with you. Power can be incredibly corrupting. Hopefully – and I’m not naive enough to believe this is the case often enough – with the study of martial arts also comes the tempering of character.

    3. Also, it’s not the only solution. I tossed my hat in for #itgetsbetter too:

    4. Also, it’s not the only solution. I tossed my hat in for #itgetsbetter too:

  16. There’s a very fine line between being a bully and becoming the bully, Christopher. While we all want to be able to defend ourselves and stand up for what’s right, turning people into powerful weapons themselves is not the answer.

    I studied martial arts – I have my brown belt in karate, and I know the respect for others it instills in you, as well as the strength and confidence it can give as well. But I’ve also seen scared kids turn into bullying jackasses when they feel that power and confidence.

    You’re making an effort to offer a solution, which is commendable. I’m just not sure your solution is the right one.

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