Is my child a bully? I’m sure you’re saying no, of course not. None of us want to imagine our child hurting someone else. But someone’s child is doing it. And if you’re their parent you have an opportunity to get them to change their behaviour. So let’s flip the question around; has your child ever been bullied? Still a painful question to consider, but you’d want to know. Would they tell you? Would you know what to do?
I ask these tricky questions because it’s Anti-Bullying Week (17-21 November). One of those annual events I really wish didn’t need to exist. But once again it’s highlighting an issue that seems to have been around for ever, even if it didn’t always have a name and was just ‘part of growing up’.
How many children are bullied?
No one knows how many children suffer bullying in the UK. It’s one of those things you think there would be a number for but no one records incidents centrally. No, not even the Department for Education. It’s not like going to a police force and asking them how many crimes they recorded.
There are of course many organisations out there researching the issue. One of my favourites is Ditch The Label who publish an annual survey of young people.
They reckon that 69% of children will experience bullying at some point in their lives. Imagine that.Out of roughly 11 million children of school age, around 770,000 could have been bullied at some point in their lives.
And around 45,000 children talked to ChildLine last year about bullying. These are just estimates, but it gives us some idea of prevalence.
Why does bullying happen?
The consensus seems to be that it can happen for all kinds of reasons, but it is mainly to do with difference. Humans have a natural tendency to want to belong to a group. This is basically the reason for much misery and prejudice in the history of our species. So when someone is perceived as not fitting the group model this breeds suspicion and aversion.
And this is reflected in Ditch The Label’s survey findings:
- 40% of respondents reported being bullied for personal appearance
- 36% reported being bullied for body shape, size and weight
- 34% reported being bullied for prejudice based reasons
- 63% of respondents with a physical disability were bullied
What does it feel like to be bullied?
I was bullied at school. (I resisted the temptation to add the qualifying ‘badly’ to that statement. How bad it is depends on your perspective.) It started at Middle School, which would be year six to nine under the current system I think, and definitely seemed to be linked to that transition to a bigger school and perhaps the early onset of puberty and testosterone flowing around the playground.
I say this because the bullying was a mixture of name calling and physical violence but it seemed to stem from the fact that I didn’t fit the idea of what a boy should be. By that I mean a societal stereotype that was presumably planted firmly into the heads of enough boys (and girls) by this age and it was about being macho and sporty. I had glasses, was crap at sport, liked reading and music and fashion and make-believe and hanging out with the girls.
Basically i was way ahead of my time. I was a metrosexual style leader trapped in the body of boy living in 1980s Tyneside.
At the time i was labelled a “effing puff” (Geordie for “poofter”), which oddly had nothing to do with sexuality at all. I think the boys were vaguely aware that Larry Grayson was an “effing puff”. And so was anyone who didn’t like football and they knew their dads were all terrified of being called a “puff”, so the boys called anyone who seemed suspect a “puff” to be on the safe side, and that was that. It was like President Bush (“oo-er matron” as we’d have said at school) during the War on Terror. You were either with us or against us. And I was suspected of being unpatriotic.
The actual bullying went in waves, but it was odd how I got used to being kicked up the bum at random as I walked down the corridor, or finding someone had written ‘puff’ on my back in black marker pen, or tipped all my books out of my bag into the loo.
I learned to cope and find people to hang out with who would look out for me. The worst it got was being tied to a tree and having a football kicked at me all break. Eventually I did decide to smack the ringleader’s face into next week. So i got detention. That was how it worked. It didn’t stop the bullying but it made me feel better.
None of the teachers cared what happened. If you complained, or your parents complained, they got you in a room and made you shake hands, which you did, while trying to crush each other’s hand and not cry. Then it would all start again, but worse.
For some reason when we moved on again to High School there were fewer incidents. Bigger pool of people to pick on perhaps. And by the time I was 14 it had all stopped and school became quite an enjoyable place. Especially with all that time I’d spent practicing chatting to girls about clothes and music.
Sadly, it’s a problem that hasn’t gone away since I was at school and, with the rise of social media, is more insidious than ever. I am very glad that ‘cyberbullying’ didn’t exist back then.
I’m sick of talking about me so here’s a couple of examples of calls to ChildLine:
My school is rubbish – I don’t like going.
I’m being bullied by a group of boys and
I don’t know why. I’ve tried my best to
avoid them but they always come and
find me to push and kick me around.
I’ve spoken to my parents who came
in and talked to my teacher but it was
a waste of time. My teacher hasn’t done
anything to help, they’ve just told me
to try and avoid them.
– Boy aged 11
I started getting bullied
at school because I look
different to everyone else in
my year. They tell me to go back
to where I came from and that
I’m ugly or horrible to look at.
I know they’re trying to make
me feel bad about myself and
it’s starting to work. I used to
be confident but now I’m shy.
My friends tell me to ignore
it but it’s really difficult not to
care. I feel so down.
– Girl aged 13
What can we do about it?
There are no easy solutions. If there were it wouldn’t still be happening. But I am an optimist and I think as parents it’s our job to make sure we bring our children up to be decent human beings.
I think we can start by not assuming we are the fully rounded lovely people we like to think we are. By this i mean that we should all do a bit of honest objective analysis of whether we have any attitudes and prejudices we may not be aware of or in denial about.
We like to think we are very PC these days, especially if like me, you see yourself as a liberal, urban, middle class, professional. But I bet we all use phrases or make off the cuff remarks now and then that betray us. Even if they are small things like saying ‘Boys don’t cry’ or ‘Gosh she’s put on weight’. It all gets soaked up by our little sponges and parroted out in the playground or online.
Baby B is too young to be a bully or be bullied. And i never want him to be on either side of that scenario. So it’s up to me and Mrs B and everyone involved in raising him to make sure we lead by example and pick up on any behaviour and deal with it promptly in an age appropriate way.
It’s inevitable that as children grow up they will squabble. I think that’s a normal part of development. What isn’t OK is where the nastiness is calculated and orchestrated. That’s bullying in my view. Where it’s not in anger that passes quickly, an uncontrolled emotion.
I dread that day he comes home with a quiet air, or a bruise, or missing some favourite possession. I dread perhaps even more the day we get a call saying he has been bullying another child. But I hope and believe we will equip him with the techniques to deflect bullying and the courage to speak out if he sees it happen to someone else. And most of all the trust to tell us about it.
I could write pages and pages about this but there is no more time. I will probably come back to this and issues around online safety in the future.
So I will leave you with this brilliant video from TV presenter and ChildLine ambassador Anna Williamson offering helpful tips and advice to children affected by bullying as part of Cartoon Network’s anti-bullying campaign #BeABuddy.
Oh and this scene from my childhood that gave me hope!
Advice for parents: Anti-Bullying Alliance
For teachers: NSPCC