The way that a lot of topics are talked about has changed dramatically since I was a child. Children are warned about the same potential threats but what constitutes a threat is not necessarily the same. Don’t talk to strangers and definitely don’t get in their cars is a pretty standard one. If you were aware of people breaking the law, you should report it to the police or a responsible, trustworthy adult. If you knew that someone was being bullied or was a bully, you should tell a teacher. If someone was being abused at home, you should talk to a teacher who could help to get the situation changed.
What’s bullying? What’s abuse? A bully is someone who is constantly hurting another person (hitting, kicking, biting, etc) for no good reason, they explained to us. What is abuse? It is when a parent or other relative is repetitively violent with a child, who has done nothing to deserve it. Or it could be sexual abuse, when an adult is inappropriately sexual with a child. Basically, bullying and abuse were the same thing, just from different people. Bullying is violence from your peers, abuse is violence from adults or other care-givers.
That’s what I understood when I was a child, anyway.
That people could do just as much damage to you with words alone was not something I was warned about the way I was warned about other dangers to my wellbeing. If you did happen to complain that other kids repeatedly teased you, or were mean to you.. they got told not to do it and you got taught a mantra: sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
Or: don’t be so sensitive. Just be glad that they aren’t beating you up. This is what people do. This is what kids do. You need to not take it so personally. They only do it because they can see that it upsets you.
It’s confusing to be told that. Someone you have approached for help is confirming what you know – that the person crafting words designed to make your heart feel tight and your throat and eyes to prickleburn with tears is doing it precisely because they know it upsets you – but you are the one that needs to harden up. Not them that needs to learn some compassion. All they’re doing is attacking everything vulnerable about your sense of self, your sense of you.. but it could be worse. They could be giving you black eyes.
Sometimes I wished for black eyes. Because I knew that physical wounds healed. There was medicine that could take away pains in your body. Yet nobody ever acknowledged the pain in my soul as being anything more than a minor inconvenience. It’s difficult to understand how you can feel so bad inside, so worthless, so filled with dread about your next encounter with the people who make you feel that way – who have been acknowledged as specifically targeting you because you get upset… and yet have adults tell you that this is the normal way that kids behave. You’re the one who is unbalancing the status quo by not just letting it slide over you like water off a duck’s back. So, to summarise: it is normal for other kids to be mean and it is abnormal for you to get upset about it.
Most of my experience with what I now understand to be bullies happened in primary school. I do remember sometimes telling my mum about it, but I don’t think I ever really shared enough for her to understand how bad it was. I think that one of the prime reasons for this was because it started after I innocently shared with someone that in my family, it was me and my mum and my mum’s wife. At 7 or 8 years of age, I had not yet encountered and did not really understand homophobia and I certainly didn’t understand that Queensland in the late 80s and early 90s was not always the most welcoming place for an LGBT family. Obviously, it is unlikely that other kids were aware of the political difficulties of the time, but I think it likely that it was an unusual enough thing to have another child claiming that a family could have two adults of the same sex that at least some of them shared this with their parents, who in turn shared their homophobic values with their children. And once they had that to criticise me about, and discovered that I was an emotionally sensitive child who was prime fodder for bullying.. well, they let their imaginations loose.
One girl came up with a little jingle. Jade, the alien from outer space. It had a tune that the kids would sing-song it in. This one was particularly confusing to me. It was clear by the way it was said/sung that it was to be understood that being an alien was not a good thing. But having been exposed to such fictional universes like the one depicted in Star Trek, I definitely did not view aliens and outer space as bad things. I was also pretty fucking bad at sport, which made me a target for ridicule and derision too. To the point where many times, my genuine best effort at team sports still resulted in the people who were unlucky enough to be stuck with me on their team angrily accused me of intentionally sabotaging our chances at winning.
Now, of course, I understand that not all kids were fortunate enough to be raised to appreciate diversity – whether it was in the from of aliens or gay people. And I also understand that it doesn’t even matter if what the bullies say to you is true. It didn’t matter that I clearly was not an alien and that the vague, terrible “gay menace” was not actually me either. What mattered was that they knew they would hurt me by picking on any of these topics. And they did it anyway. Then, because I got upset and cried, I was also a big sooky baby. And that just gave them something else to add to the list of things that would push my sensitive buttons.
I think that schools and stuff now are much better about teaching kids about the different forms that bullying can take. It’s no longer just about physical violence. I am not convinced that their better understanding of the presentation of bullying has carried over into better ways to prevent it from happening and handling it when it does. It seems like a lot of kids still feel like they are powerless and not a lot is done to punish the ones doing the bullying. I hear stuff sometimes about how bullies need to receive care themselves, that it’s because if a lack of something they need that they behave like this. I don’t really believe that. It might be true occasionally, but by and large there is no way that you can tell me that kids do not understand that what they do is hurtful. And when they are doing it and they know that, then they should be punished. Turning them into victims that need help means that their victims are being neglected and made to feel guilty for the lack of compassion they have for the very people that are making them miserable.