Learning to deal with bullying, name-calling
an important part of growing up
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.

Traditional childhood response to taunts

Gov. Deval Patrick has designated Jan. 25 "No Name Calling Day" as part of the state's effort to combat bullying in public schools.

Students are being encouraged to wear black that day to symbolize their commitment to "black out bullying." This is part of "No Name Calling Week" sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Educational Network (GLSEN).

Good for them. The bullying issue has been with us since the beginning of history. The youth version, that had long been taken for granted as part of the growing-up struggle, is finally being addressed, and with such a broad-based coalition!

It was inspired in Massachusetts by the suicide last January of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish immigrant who was taunted by fellow students at South Hadley High School, allegedly because of some dating faux pas.

Hers, of course, was an entirely inappropriate response. A bullying-related suicide should be discussed in the context of serious mental health issues, which won't be fixed by student activism. Healthy youngsters don't kill themselves because other insecure youngsters verbally bully them.

Violent bullying is another matter. On the national level, bullies can get wars declared against them or revolutions. With adults, there are 911 calls, restraining orders and jail time for assault. The response when children are attacked should also be swift and serious; this is what grown-ups (and governments) are for.

But when the bullying is nonphysical? Is there anyone here who has never recited that little poem at the top of this column?

I hadn't realized until recently that the poem itself is controversial. Some mental health professionals argue that words can indeed hurt us, can damage self-esteem at an age when it can have a permanent impact.

Well, yes, almost anything that happens in our early life experience can have a permanent impact; the environmental factor combines with our genetics to create our uniqueness. The inclination of some children to become bullies contrasts with the inclination of others to be kind; the decision of some to be victims contrasts with the decision of others to ignore or fight back.

Funny the things we remember from long ago. When I became aware of the anti-bullying campaign, I thought of a girl with whom I went to grade school. I called some childhood friends to ask if they remembered her, and they did, even though it was over half a century ago. They recalled she was bullied on the playground, somewhere around the fourth grade. I don't recall her after that.

She was a big-boned girl, not overweight but tall, and from a different ethnic background than other kids in the mostly German/Irish town. But I was taller, with a Slavic name, and I wasn't bullied; I'm quite sure I wasn't a perpetrator either. Yet my friends and I still feel bad that we may have laughed as the boys taunted her, and didn't try to discourage them. One of my friends recalls that she had poor hygiene and a bad temper; who knows which was a cause and which an effect of the cruel treatment.

So if we remember this incident from our childhood, it's hard to imagine that the victim herself forgot it. I wish I knew whether it impacted her entire life, either by damaging her self-esteem, or making her stronger because she survived it.

Reading about "black out" Wednesday, I recall that during my high school years there was something about wearing green on Thursday, which I think had something to do with being homosexual, not that any of us girls knew what that meant.

Well, it was generally a time of innocence, especially in small towns. But what has changed that allows some kids to bully in full view of their classmates, without shame?

I see the GLSEN initiative, like the television series "Glee," as clarifying that those who fight bullying are the good guys, which puts the bullies in their proper place.

I just found a wonderful piece of advice from the "Be Your Own Therapist" movement.

"Someone call you a name? Whenever you hear such a name directed your way, thoughts along the lines of, 'the name-caller is feeling weak right now', will help prevent a possible hurt for you. Another useful self-thought is, 'Whatever people say about me says nothing about me, but a lot about them'.

"We would be happier, feel more self-esteem and could change the world dramatically if we all thought the following: 'If I get upset by someone calling me a name, then I have given away my power and I need to make a different choice'."

This changes the emphasis from trying to understand or change bullies to the easier chore of addressing our own situation.

Take it from me, ignoring those who call you names not only saves you psychic energy, it has the added benefit of annoying them. Eventually, you might find yourself prepared even for the adult political arena, where a solid counterattack can be healthy, too.

I applaud the initiative of Gov. Patrick and GLSEN for young people.

This adult, however, won't be taking a "no-name-calling" pledge; for the purpose of time-saving identification, I might have to call a liar a liar, an irrational person an idiot, and ... a bully, a bully.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette.

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