A Christian Response To Bullying
Moving from “just kids being kids” to justice for kids
by Margot Starbuck
When the moist gym towel snapped, it caught the prepubescent boy between the legs. Frank was the smallest and weakest boy in the locker room, and his tormentors laughed when he cried out in pain. Raising a knee to protect his groin, Frank slipped, falling toward a bench of amused onlookers. Impulsively pushed away, he fell, naked, into another wet body.
“Get off me, you fag!” barked one.
Another demanded, “Hey, squirt, you looking for trouble?”
Popular Christian author Frank Peretti describes, in excruciating detail, the abuse he endured in childhood in his book No More Bullies: For Those Who Wound or Are Wounded. His story puts human flesh on the current rise in school bullying.
Whether we were raised watching Little Rascals, Little House on the Prairie, or Stuart Little, many of us have resigned ourselves to the fact that, at the end of the day, the dull, muscle-bound bully will have confiscated the lunch money of the weak underdog. Kids will be kids, right? For years, too many adults have been willing to shrug off bullying as one of the unpreventable chronic difficulties of childhood. And though we know instinctively that it’s not right, few of us have been willing to stand up and declare it to be wrong.
Today Peretti, and others, recognizing the inherent evil of bullying, are asking if this might not be the moment for Christians to take a stand. Dan Weiss, former senior analyst for media and sexuality at Focus on the Family, remarks, “Bullying has come to the fore of national consciousness in the past few years, and it is time our culture takes this more seriously. The call of Christ is always for the downtrodden and, unfortunately, it seems like Christians have been slow to respond.”
Will evangelicals who are concerned with social justice—liberating the captives, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry—respond to school bullying? Will we engage today with those who are bruised, bound by fear, and hungry because their lunch money has been extorted, to offer hope? Christians today are being presented with the opportunity both to think theologically about bullying and to implement creative solutions to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Just the facts
Across the nation, the number of students who are reporting being bullied is on the rise. In the fall of 2011, Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), reported to the second annual Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit that 28 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18 reported being bullied during the 2008-2009 school year. In 2003, just five years earlier, only 7 percent of students had reported being bullied. The trajectory is disturbing. And though the meaning of the numbers is debated, with some suggesting that bullying is only reported more frequently now, the fact remains that more than one in four students experience bullying in school today.
Increasingly the two-dimensional stereotype of the hulking dumb thug fails. Today boys are bullying and girls are bullying. Weiss explains, “Bullies are children who have their own wounds, insecurities, and traumas and are dealing with them by reenacting those traumas on others.” Some of these children who bully have endured abuse or neglect at home. Others have endured bullying at school. Weiss wisely adds, “Not all bullies come from what we consider to be a classic broken home where divorce, abuse, or neglect has occurred. Many bullies come from intact and otherwise well-off families. Yet our culture has grown increasingly narcissistic and digitized, the combination of which has opened up the door to greater opportunities to hurt others.” Easy access to graphic pornography, much of which is no more than sexualized violence, racism, and misogyny, means that many young people are indoctrinated from an early age in the art of bullying and dominating those they perceive as weak or unworthy of respect.
Not only can we not predict with accuracy who will bully, we also cannot predict who the victims will be. Data collected by the NCES about victims’ age, school performance, income, gender, and race yielded no identifiable trends or patterns that might identify why a student would or would not be bullied. The blight is even impacting children’s ability to learn. Nationally acclaimed youth speaker Mark Brown reports that every day 150,000 children stay home from school to avoid bullies.
Children are not only bullying in person, they’re doing it remotely. One-fourth of students who’ve been bullied report being cyber-bullied—harassed through technology such as computers or cell phones. Some of this harassment is sexual. The American Association of University Women reports that 81 percent of students in US schools will experience some form of sexual harassment, with 27 percent experiencing it often.
Students report that bullying is happening in parking lots, hallways, and even in classrooms. While some assaults are physical, the NCES has found that twice as many students were attacked verbally—mocked, called names, or insulted in a very hurtful way—than those who experienced physical violence.
If bullying is on the rise, despair is as well. The Center for Disease Control reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers, with 14 percent of high school students saying they have considered it. Yale University studies reveal that victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to consider taking their own lives than nonvictims.
Paying attention to the signs
While the face of bullying varies, StopBullying.gov, recognizes that three factors are always present in bullying situations. The first factor is imbalance of power. People who bully use their power to control or harm, and the people being bullied may have a hard time defending themselves. The second is intent to cause harm. Actions done by accident are not bullying; the person bullying has a goal to cause harm. The third factor is repetition. Incidents of bullying happen to the same person over and over by the same person or group.
If these ring familiar, it’s because they resonate with other pervasive patterns of violence in the culture. As the church gradually woke up to, and continues to confront, slavery, domestic violence, child abuse, racism, and modern-day human trafficking, some, like Peretti and Weiss, say it is time to add bullying to our list of priorities. Peretti observes, “Whether on an international scale, in your own neighborhood, or in your own family, the results are the same: People are no longer intrinsically precious, so it’s easy to find petty reasons to mistreat the weak, the less intelligent, the less affluent, the physically disfigured, or those who, for whatever arbitrary reason, don’t ‘measure up.’” And while Christians—led by the likes of William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., and more recently organizations like International Justice Mission—have eventually acted on behalf of the oppressed, we’ve not yet worked together in a systematic way to release young people from the suffering of dehumanizing bullying.
How do we respond?
Christian young people browsing online for help with bullying can quickly discover what the Bible reportedly says about bullying. These “verses about bullying” include Jesus’ admonition, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). Also included is the assurance, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:1). None provide much hope to either vulnerable victims or aggressive bullies.
Studies have proven that receiving outside support is one of the most important factors in dealing with bullying. Weiss exhorts, “Parents can be involved in the bullying issue the same way they ought to be involved in other issues their children encounter and need help navigating. The best and most important step is to create and maintain clear and safe lines of communication.” Unfortunately, many adults are simply not equipped to deal with the problem constructively. The trite assurance of the one who casually offers, “Just tell an adult”—which young people know intrinsically often makes the situation worse—provides no more hope of relief to a desperate child or teen than do the canned Bible verses. Today’s young people deserve more than fortune cookie aphorisms, biblical or otherwise.
In order to generate effective solutions it’s critical to understand why bullies bully. Often there is a conflict, internal to the bully, which is expressed in relation to someone who’s identified as being weaker. According to Weiss, they’re dealing with their own traumas by inflicting them on others. He explains, “A significant number of children who admit to bullying others have been bullied themselves. Somewhere in this discussion we need to recognize the cycle of abuse and begin to teach our youth better ways of channeling their frustrations with others.”
Just how to do that is the question many are asking today. Professional sports consultant Garret Kramer recognizes that stated school or classroom rules such as “no put downs” and “listen to each other” are not preventing bullying. He notes, “If a student was capable of accepting these anti-bullying ‘ground rules,’ he or she wouldn’t be behaving badly in the first place.” Rather, Kramer claims that the single most critical factor in bullying is an individual’s state of mind. He explains, “When an individual finds himself or herself in a high mood, the urge to bully—if it occurs at all—will come and go. But when an individual is in a low mood, he or she may look to bullying as the solution to unruly thoughts and feelings.”
Kramer’s insistence that bullying is determined by the state of mind of the bully, as opposed to either outside events or any identifiable characteristic of the victim, resonates with current psychological wisdom. Though many children experience difficulties at home or at school, not all bully. Dr. David Stoop, licensed clinical psychologist and executive board member of the American Association of Christian Counselors, claims, “We are too easily caught up in that old ‘stimulus causes response’ way of thinking.”* That, he claims, is a closed circuit, a process that cannot be changed. Something else occurs, reports Stoop, between the stimulus and the response. That intermediary step is the presence of our own personal set of beliefs. Beliefs about ourselves, others, and the way the world works can create any variety of responses and consequences in an individual. Negative beliefs about one’s self and others can be expressed through bullying.
While Kramer would concur that the stimulus-response logic is faulty, he’d identify the x-factor that leads to bullying not as beliefs but as mood. To illustrate, Kramer points to the practice of Maria Venegas, a teacher in Albuquerque, N. Mex. Upon arriving in class each day, Venegas’s middle school students are invited to chart their moods using a “mood meter.” Kramer reports, “Her students have learned that productive behaviors come from moods at the top end of the chart, while unproductive actions—such as bullying—are generated from moods at the bottom of the chart.” The mood meter, helping students notice what’s impacting their behaviors, is working for Venegas.
Both Stoop and Kramer suggest that increasing the self-awareness of bullies is what leads to changed behavior. This awareness must be integrated into effective anti-bullying strategies.
Consequences beyond punishment
As in the plight of young Frank Peretti, the smallest child in the locker room, bullies will often target a child who is in some way different. When bullying has been related to either a young person’s emerging sexuality or involves teasing about gay parents, some school districts have purposed to sensitize all students by introducing curriculum which includes lessons on diversity. (See “Bullying, from the Schoolyard to the Schoolboard” on this page.) In reaction to this inclusive curriculum, in which some recognize an “agenda” of those who promote diversity, the Alliance Defense Fund has created a model anti-bullying policy which depends in large part upon the swift punishment of bullies.
Unfortunately, punishment alone doesn’t effectively transform behavior. John Heffernan, director of Central Park School for Children in Durham, N.C., an elementary school committed to standing against bullying, warns that simply punishing a bully neither gets at the root cause for the violence nor does it teach children new strategies for relating to others. Nor does didactic conversation effect change. “Just talking about a problem,” says Heffernan, “doesn’t work.”**
Instead, staff at Central Park School utilize a variety of practices that include using active listening with both parties, facilitating a meeting for students to talk it out with one another, and helping offenders explore other possible solutions for the future. As in Venegas’s Albuquerque classroom, children are invited to examine what’s going on in their own inner world. One of the methods the school employs is a storyboard exercise, with squares aligned in a cartoon sequence, called “social stories.” In it, the child draws pictures which illustrate positive ways to engage with others in the future. Heffernan explains, “Visual cues that help kids with learning disabilities are good for all kids.” Later, when a child’s own record of the work that’s been done between the bully and victim is sent home to parents, Heffernan explains, “The child realizes that we’re all together on this.”
The approach to bullying at Central Park School has been effective because the school understands that responding to incidents with punishment or lectures or discussion is not transformational. Citing moral leaders like Martin Luther King, Heffernan recognizes that students must develop as whole persons, explaining, “We know that character is more important than intelligence, than intellect.” Purposefully providing space for reflection—about mood and beliefs and choices—gives young people opportunity to develop that character.
Reflecting and modeling truth about identity
In our homes and schools and churches Christians can nurture and model relationships which exhibit respect and, when respect fails, reconciliation. In order to mature into functional individuals, children need both to see appropriate relationships in action and to witness the way healthy adults work through conflict.
Seventeen-year-old TJ Lane, of Chardon, Ohio, had endured a difficult and sometimes violent home life. Lane was arrested for the tragic shooting of five fellow students, on February 27, 2012. Many of us would prefer not to imagine that offenders like Lane, or his victims, are in our congregations. But Lane, an active member in his church’s youth group, was exactly like the children and teens we know. According to the research of Dr. Alice Miller, developing relationships with these young people is what makes a difference in their lives.
Miller, in her work with those who had experienced abuse and neglect in childhood, discovered the single determining factor separating those who later perpetuated violence and those who did not: the presence of a person Miller calls a “helping witness.” This was a concerned individual—neighbor, aunt, teacher, pastor—who reflected for the child that he or she did not deserve the treatment he or she endured. Children who had access to this helping witness were those who grew up to thrive and to stop the cycle of violence they had endured. Weiss concurs, “Christians do have tremendous opportunities to positively impact the lives of not only those youth who have been bullied but those who are doing the bullying.”*** Both bullies and victims need mature adults to reflect for them the truth about who they are.
In addition to investing in the lives of young people, reflecting their inherent value and worth, Christians can also model reconciliation for children. Weiss observes, “Parents are in the unique position to teach and model healthy ways to manage conflict. They do this by demonstrating good ways of dealing with marital and job stress. They can pray about situations in front of and with their children. They can model forgiveness and a soft heart for others.”
One savvy mom did this very thing. Jane P. remembers when her son, now 23, was being teased mercilessly at school. When she initiated a conversation with the bully’s mother, the families were able to move toward reconciliation, with the bully eventually apologizing. Seizing the opportunity to build relationship where there was brokenness, the mothers even began exercising together for a season. Young people learn how to work through conflict by observing adults doing it.
Both bullies and their victims need access to those who can function as “helping witnesses,” reflecting the truth about their inherent value and belovedness. According to Miller, the truth reflected by this adult face is what actually corrects some of the “beliefs” identified by Dr. Stoop that lead to inappropriate behaviors. Victims whose experience of being bullied has confirmed the lies identified by Peretti—that they are not intrinsically precious—find reflected in this face the truth of their belovedness as well.
Dan Weiss shares how a “helping witness” impacted his own life. “In seventh grade,” Weiss explains, “I was picked on by an older boy each day after lunch. I was so distraught I finally told my father about it.” Although their relationship was tenuous, Weiss’ father encouraged him to stand up to the bully. Weiss continues, “I don’t know if hitting the kid would have solved my problems, as I never got the chance to find out. The next day, empowered by the fact that my dad had my back, I left lunch with a new confidence. That boy didn’t bother me again for many years.”
When his inherent worth, as someone who was worth protecting, was reflected by his father, Weiss accessed the internal resources to deal with a bully. He adds, “He never moved a muscle toward me. After several seconds of this standoff, I knew he posed no threat, and I never again paid him any mind other than to pray for him. To me, having confidence in myself made all the difference. When he sensed he couldn’t push my buttons, he stopped trying.”
Schools around the country are implementing a variety of programs to combat bullying. Some are employing principles of restorative justice, emphasizing repairing the harm inflicted by criminal behavior. In these initiatives, bullies and their victims meet so that aggressors can learn about the consequences and impact of their actions. Willing bullies can often escape formal disciplinary action if they then apologize to the victim. Unfortunately research has shown the procedure isn’t the cure-all some once hoped it might be, with results being widely exaggerated. What is so right about it, though, is that it makes space for reconciliation.
Reconciliation has been realized in other types of conflicts—across ethnic barriers or rival gang affiliations—when those in conflict are provided with opportunities to know each other by working together. So while an insincere apology may prove ineffective, broader reconciliation efforts suggest that genuine reconciliation between bullies and victims may be possible with a greater depth of connection in which individuals are humanized as their common humanity is recognized.
Parents of bullies play a surprisingly critical role in reducing bullying. In studying the relationship between forgiveness, reconciliation, and shame in reducing school bullying, Eliza Ahmen and Valerie Braithwaite have identified the significance of parental response to their child’s bullying. They explain, “A parental response of forgiveness and reconciliation will assist children in the painful process of acknowledging shame. The child works through their shame knowing that their parents hold hope and trust in their future. In other words, they can change their behavior in the future; they can self-regulate against bullying.” As parents practice forgiveness and reconciliation, reducing shame rather than inflaming it, bullying decreases.
Concerned Christians also serve young people as we offer them spiritual resources, through Christian practices, for their life journey. For instance, when a child forgives an offender—whether or not the bully is repentant—the act functions to liberate the victim from the sting of shame and sin. When we teach young people that forgiveness is not for the weak, but for the strong, we equip them with necessary tools for the present and for the future.
Whether through creating space for authentic engagement and relationship between bullies and victims, equipping parents with tools for success, or instilling Christian practice in the hearts of young people, the harvest is ripe. Today Christians—parents and teachers and youth leaders and others—who are committed to social action have rich opportunities both to engage with young people at a personal level and to create opportunities for reconciliation and redemption. As those called to protect the most vulnerable, liberate captives, and heal the wounded, Christians can agree that the time is right.
Margot Starbuck is based in Durham, N.C., and is the author of several books, including Small Things with Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor (2012) and The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail (2009), both from InterVarsity Press. Connect with her on facebook or at MargotStarbuck.com.
Some public schools, in efforts to end bullying, have introduced tolerance curriculum. In many of these instances, however, the issue quickly becomes politicized, especially among Christians. In several states, families and faith-based groups have opposed anti-bullying curricula that educate students about gay teens and families headed by same-sex couples, which they feel are an effort to normalize homosexuality and advocate for gay marriage rather than simply sensitize students about bullying sexual minorities. When parents from Alameda, Calif., lost a case fighting to remove the inclusive curriculum, many removed their children from the public schools.
The outcry of many of these groups coincides with the concern of Candi Cushman of Focus on the Family, “We need to protect all children from bullying, but the advocacy groups are promoting homosexual lessons in the name of anti-bullying.” Unfortunately, the “but” in Cushman’s statement, and others’, effectively functions to remove the conversation from the reality of children’s suffering and thrust it into the political realm. In an effort to distinguish the issue of bullying from any implicit endorsement of homosexual behavior, the Alliance Defense Fund has proposed a model anti-bullying policy. BullyPolice.org, a watchdog organization that advocates for bullied children and reports on state anti-bullying laws, offers a comprehensive framework for the issue in their “The More Perfect Anti-Bullying Law: Harrassment, Intimidation and/or Bullying Prohibition & Cyberbullying.”
Bully (2012) is a documentary by award-winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch that gives voice to five families’ stories, stories that challenge viewers to move from shock and resignation about bullying to action. It is a call to transform schools and communities into places where empathy and respect are valued and bullying is unacceptable. The Bully Project is a collaborative effort that brings together partner organizations that share a commitment to ending bullying. Learn more about both at TheBullyProject.com. No More Bullies: For Those Who Wound or Are Wounded by Frank Peretti (Thomas Nelson, 2003) is the author’s personal story about growing up different and the persecution he suffered because of it. In it he calls on victims, authority figures, and bystanders to speak up and take action, refusing to treat bullying as an inevitable part of “kids being kids.” BullyPolice.org outlines and assesses individual US states’ anti-bullying laws. See how your state’s laws measure up. StopBullying.gov provides information from various government agencies on how kid kids, teens, young adults, parents, educators, and others in the community can prevent or stop bullying. Bullying and Stop Bullying! is a two-part DVD set from Paraclete Video Productions that shares students’ real-life experiences in order for both kids and adults to get a better grasp on what bullying is and the toll it takes. It explores the serious consequences for both the victims and the bullies, ranging from low self-esteem to suicide, and reveals the need for young people to have guidance from the adults in their lives to deal with bullying in a healthy way.
Bully (2012) is a documentary by award-winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch that gives voice to five families’ stories, stories that challenge viewers to move from shock and resignation about bullying to action. It is a call to transform schools and communities into places where empathy and respect are valued and bullying is unacceptable. The Bully Project is a collaborative effort that brings together partner organizations that share a commitment to ending bullying. Learn more about both at TheBullyProject.com.
No More Bullies: For Those Who Wound or Are Wounded by Frank Peretti (Thomas Nelson, 2003) is the author’s personal story about growing up different and the persecution he suffered because of it. In it he calls on victims, authority figures, and bystanders to speak up and take action, refusing to treat bullying as an inevitable part of “kids being kids.”
BullyPolice.org outlines and assesses individual US states’ anti-bullying laws. See how your state’s laws measure up.
StopBullying.gov provides information from various government agencies on how kid kids, teens, young adults, parents, educators, and others in the community can prevent or stop bullying.
Bullying and Stop Bullying! is a two-part DVD set from Paraclete Video Productions that shares students’ real-life experiences in order for both kids and adults to get a better grasp on what bullying is and the toll it takes. It explores the serious consequences for both the victims and the bullies, ranging from low self-esteem to suicide, and reveals the need for young people to have guidance from the adults in their lives to deal with bullying in a healthy way.
* Excerpted from forthcoming manuscript, working title The Power of a Renewed Mind, by David Stoop. Used here by permission of author.
** Interview with John Heffernan, February 10, 2012.
*** Interview with Dan Weiss, by email and phone, February/March 2012.