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Bullying: It's Time for Parents to Step Up

It's time to realize that "bullying" incorporates more than the hideous abuse and high-profile suicides of other people's kids, and more than the over-the-top, often cute and clever nastiness depicted in movies and television.
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Thanks to Lady Gaga, Anderson Cooper, and all those in the trenches, the issue of bullying is again back on our radar. Most of us now know about 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, the latest in a line of children who believed the only way out of their real-time nightmare was suicide. Kind, intelligent, good kids who confided, spoke up, and garnered support from family, friends, school officials, even celebrities. In the darkness, they found it just wasn't enough -- our assurance that "It gets better" failed them.

Lest we forget, bullying was one of our nation's top stories back in 2010, too. The "silver lining" of tragedies involving kids like Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi was this sense that maybe people were finally beginning to appreciate that our everyday cruelties can make mincemeat of another's well-being. We hoped for enlightenment among kids, educators, lawmakers and, perhaps especially, parents. We hoped for change.

Too many still don't get it.

Some call the attention to bullying "overblown media hype," arguing that today's eggshell kids need to "just get over it" (as if toughening up would negate the cruelty being inflicted). Others insist bullying is a rite of passage, the cost of doing business as a human, that the injured must lack vital life skills which Scotchguard stronger souls from hurt, that they invited their abuse somehow, or that by 5th grade we all magically "outgrow" these shenanigans so, really, it's no big deal. The skepticism is nothing new. As Young-Shin Kim, MD, Associate Professor at the Yale School of Medicine's Child Study Center, has noted, people have long dismissed bullying's ugly truths.

It's time to realize that "bullying" incorporates more than the hideous abuse and high-profile suicides of other people's kids, and more than the over-the-top, often cute and clever nastiness depicted in movies and television. Few discuss it openly but, the truth is, kids and adults all around you struggle with the effects of more nuanced, garden-variety cruelty, as well. For many, the nudges, slights, manipulations, and careless whispers we think are benign frequently are not. A growing, troubling pool of research in fact confirms serious, long-term fallout from all kinds of interpersonal aggression, evidence the Journal of Pediatrics calls "clear and consistent."

You can tell a kid to toughen up, grin, and bear it, but we all have different levels of sensitivity and resilience. Study after study reveals lasting marks on people's confidence, willingness to take risks, ability to trust or form quality relationships, and ability to contribute and thrive in life. Aggressors, bystanders, and victims cope with shattered self-esteem, anxiety, social awkwardness, greater susceptibility to illness, eating disorders, substance abuse, loneliness, depression, suicidal ideation, and more -- consequences costly to individuals and, ultimately, society. Really, if evidence about the toll aggression takes on developing children isn't enough to convince us to curb the gratuitous negativity and insist on the same from our kids, what will?

Jamey and the others leave a powerful legacy. But memories are short, educators can only do so much and, frankly, fashioning laws to deal with aggression or turning to litigation is tricky business. Call it cliche, but we really have to look to the home -- parents need to step up. Most of the cruelty is unnecessary and often learned or excused so it continues. Kids and adults alike mistreat one another out of habit, boredom and insecurity, for sport or entertainment, to bond or seem clever and witty, and to gain acceptance or other social rewards.

As a mother of four, I'm all for gentle teasing, resourcefulness, resilience, and personal responsibility -- to a point. I'm all for raising less entitled and less insulated kids free from parental micromanaging and helicoptering. What I'm not for is denial, distraction, and burying heads in the sands of complacency, for failing to teach kids the fundamental tenets of respect and dignity, or forgetting to show them what kindness and empathy look like. I'm not for letting kids get away with "little nothing" acts of meanness or for adults opting out of crucial oversight and intervention. Shouldn't we be striving to provide a physically -- and emotionally -- safe environment for our offspring to launch?

Insisting that bullying is harmless, isolated child's play or somebody else's issue is folly. Inhumanity is inhumanity. It reflects poorly on us as Americans and as evolved, moral beings. Let's hope these issues remain at the forefront of our national conversation and that parents feel moved to practice and teach a more mindful civility. In showing respect, kindness, inclusion, and tolerance, and in standing up for the dignity of others, after all, we also preserve our own.