New Jersey has the toughest “anti-bullying” law in the nation. (Feel free to substitute the word “toughest” with “stupidest” in the previous sentence). Under their law, “bullying” has become a criminal matter. If a student is caught being a big fat meanie face, a bullying charge will be put on his permanent record. That way, we can take one little insult that a child says to another child on the playground, and turn it into something that will potentially haunt him for the next decade. What a positively brilliant plan! Under the law, if you want to get the charge removed from your record, you have to go to court. COURT. As in, like, the place where they convict murderers and rapists. And now it’s also a place where they discern whether little Johnny acted with criminal intent when he made fun of Jimmy for throwing a baseball like a girl.
Here’s an actual thing that actually happened in a court room in New Jersey last week: An eighth grade boy testified in front of a judge in an attempt to have a bullying charge dropped from his record. The offense? He allegedly called his female classmate a “horse” and a “fat ass”.
So. This is something that’s happening in America now.
And don’t get too comfortable if you don’t live in New Jersey. Many states have anti-bullying laws on the books, and there’s been a passionate push to have a FEDERAL anti-bullying law passed. Because, clearly, if Susie says a nasty thing about Sally, parents and teachers should address the problem. But, if they can’t succeed in magically making all kids be nice to each other, we need to help them out by involving administrators. Then help the administrators, teachers, and parents by involving law enforcement. Then help the administrators, teachers, parents and law enforcement by involving the state government and the courts. Then help the administrators, teachers, parents, law enforcement, courts and state government by involving the federal government. THEN if THAT doesn’t work, you need to help the administrators, teachers, parents, law enforcement, courts, state government and federal government by involving the United Nations. THEN if THAT doesn’t work, maybe we can circle back around and just let parents and teachers deal with it because, although not a perfect solution, it sure beats turning a bratty comment uttered by a 12 year old into an international crisis.
I know bullying can be tough on kids. I also know that if there was ever a problem that can’t be fixed, helped, solved, negated or otherwise addressed by government — it’s this one. Bullying is nothing new. It isn’t worse now than it’s ever been. It isn’t an “epidemic”. It isn’t mysterious. It’s simply what happens when one person tries to elevate himself by tearing down another person. Human beings have always done this. And not just in school. There are bullies everywhere you turn. It gets worse when you leave grade school, not better. Because now the bullies are bosses and managers and courts and politicians and, generally, just people who can severely screw your life up in more ways than making you feel self conscience about your big nose or large butt.
Bullying is a problem of the heart and the ego. You can’t legislate it out of existence and you can’t scare it away by literally making a federal case out of it. The best thing we can do is teach our kids how to process and handle the bullying. Because if there’s anything that IS worse now than before — it’s that kids are so helplessly obsessed with getting approval from their peers. It’s not that their peers are nastier, it’s just that they are far more impacted by the nastiness because they’re totally preoccupied with being liked by their peers. This is a dynamic that is certainly worse and more intense than it was 50 years ago or anytime prior to that. So a kid in 2013 is just as likely to be called a “horse” as a kid in 1932, but the kid in 1932 wasn’t as likely to be viscerally devastated at the pit of her being because of the comment. It would hurt, of course, but it wouldn’t be the catastrophic tragedy that it is today.
I’m not saying that kids today are “wimps” and they just need to “get over it”. I’m saying there is a psychological phenomenon called “peer orientation” and it has gripped ahold of at least two generations of Americans. Peer orientation means that kids essentially learn everything about how to live, act, think and feel from OTHER kids. It’s a Lord of the Flies situation, only worse. And it doesn’t end in childhood. We live in a culture of people who are utterly obsessed with gaining approval from their peers. Pretty much every advertising campaign manipulates and exasperates this obsession by shilling things we don’t need, but we must have, if we want to keep up with our peers.
I could write 5 chapters on this subject, but you probably stopped reading after 5 paragraphs, so there’s no point. Suffice it to say that we, as usual, are missing the point by 1000 miles when it comes to bullying.