Bully For You


I’m 50 now, but I can still imagine myself back into the old school yard. I can conjure the sights, the sounds, even the smells (a combination of rotting orange peel mixed with Globite suitcase and Peck’s paste) vividly.

With the smells comes the memory of the intense feelings that so often knotted my stomach. The tense terror I felt as I wondered how I would fare that day and the guilty delight that accompanied the days when I knew it would be my turn to be mean to someone else rather than have to suffer everyone else being mean to me.

Am I alone in recalling this in remembering how eager I was to align myself with those who attacked, rather than those who defended? Oh, I could be sanctimonious, alright, in that particularly irritating way little girls have when they ape their mothers in an attempt to be self-consciously ‘good’ rather than because they actually feel compassionate.

I knew about compassion, I understood it as a concept; I just had a lot of trouble really feeling it. While we didn’t use the term ‘losers’ in the playgrounds of the 1960s, we nevertheless understood the idea completely. Losers were people you did not want to associate with, because being a loser was contagious, success for the child (as so often for the adult) is all about the company you keep.

I must be alone in my recall because I was recently brought up short by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about a study into school bullying that said ‘ the researchers were surprised to find that many bullies were also victims.’

Say what? Did the researchers ever actually go to school? Don’t they have any memories of goading or, at the very least, ostentatiously avoiding the plain, the smelly, the unwashed or the just plain peculiar? Perhaps they were the rare child who never bullied anyone (what, not even their younger siblings?) or the sad swats who the teachers loved but the rest of the kids couldn’t wait to get on their own in the playground you know, on the odd occasion they left the library.

I was a bit of a sad swat myself and remember the safety of the library well but I cannot in all honesty claim that when I got the chance, I didn’t join in the bullying. Why wouldn’t I? If the kids were bullying someone else, they weren’t bullying me.

While we would all like to believe our own children incapable of cruelty, I suspect honest parents recognise that children are both nice and nasty, and that teaching them to vent their aggression and anger (and fear) appropriately is an important part of good parenting. But it takes time. No child, no matter how precocious, is born knowing how to do it. While there are probably a small number of disturbed kids who are always the bully or always the victim, most children are both at some point.

Perhaps that is why I find the tone of so much of the current moral panic about bullying in schools so irritating. It’s as if the people talking about it really think that bullies are some peculiar, discreet group of children that could never include their own, a bit like the ubiquitous ‘wrong crowd’, perhaps.

And the self-righteous pontificating of politicians on this subject really makes my blood boil. Australia has a leadership culture whether in politics, business, the law, unions, or wherever that positively applauds and rewards a particular style of bully boy tactics. The treatment of Cornelia Rau, Vivian Solon and Mohamed Haneef have all the hallmarks of classic bullying to me.

Indeed, the current witch-hunt on teachers and the way they deal with bullying can smack of bully boy tactics itself. And that’s the problem with bullying, it tends to be circular.

Years ago, when I was in counseling, someone explained to me what they called ‘the drama triangle’. How it works is that in any aggressive incident there is a bully (called a ‘perpetrator’) and a victim. Then, if a third party jumps in to rescue the victim (known as a ‘rescuer’), what often happens is the rescuer becomes the bully, the perpetrator becomes the victim, someone else jumps in to rescue the perpetrator-turned-victim and they all move round the circle.

Hence the complexity of the dilemma faced by authority figures dealing with bullying. How do you deal with it without resorting to the very behaviour you want to condemn? Any parent who has separated warring siblings and listened to their heartfelt and aggrieved explanations can surely sympathise with a teacher who finds themselves in the same position. How can you know who to believe, when both sides put forward their point of view with such sincerity?

Many parents and teachers are rightly, in my view wary of being sucked in to the drama triangle and very much aware that today’s victim is very likely to have been yesterday’s bully and may be tomorrow’s as well. Even the small children picked on by bigger kids are likely to grow bigger themselves and do the same. Empathy and self awareness are very mature characteristics — so mature, in fact, that many adults seem to find them hard to grasp, particularly, perhaps, the self-righteous parents who front up to schools demanding the authorities come down hard on those children they identify as bullies.

Like their mother, both my own daughters have been bullied, and have been bullies. As parents, we tried to punish one behaviour but, also, to refuse to reward the other. We used their pain at being bullied to try to develop their empathy — whether we succeeded or not, it’s probably too early to tell. What I did try to teach them was to step off the drama triangle, to diffuse the situation and walk away from it, to support the bullied but to do it without condemning the bully.

After all, as I (probably irritatingly) reminded them when they complained about being bullied, they had been guilty of the same behaviour themselves in the past, so self-righteousness on their part was not an option.

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