Bully Research

Everyone who knows Silas knows that he is an unbelievably sweet person. Honestly, it’s a bit of a mystery how JC and I ended up with such a kind, openhearted kid. He’s such a sweetie that he completely doesn’t understand being mean to people.

Silas with a unicorn

Even to his little sister, he’s very kind.

I think this is at least in part because he’s a very empathic person. If he hurts somebody else, he feels that hurt viscerally himself. A strong incentive not to hurt others.

He’s fascinated, though, by what might make people be cruel to one another. When we read Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus last year, which has a lot of stuff about kids being bullied for disabilities, Silas couldn’t understand that part of the story at all. “Why do the other kids think that’s funny?” he kept asking. He didn’t get the joke.

Silas says his “title and life motto” is “Friend to most.” I asked him if he’s ever met somebody he wouldn’t included in that “most,” and he said, “Not yet, but I’m leaving the possibility open.” He truly believes that the power of his friendly smile would be enough to overcome any bully’s defenses.

I was a little surprised when he told me he wanted to learn about bullying, but when I thought more about it, I realized it’s the same question he’s been asking since he was tiny, when he and his friend Noah would play “superheroes”, and instead of blasting the bad guys into space or shooting death rays or something, they would pretend that they befriended the bad guys, and brought them over to the good side.

Silas, age 4, posing as Spiderman, superimposed with the text: "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them [superheroes]?"—Abraham Lincoln/Silas

He’s been homeschooled for his whole life. One benefit of that is that he’s never been in a group of thirty kids that meet day after day, who are all the same age, who compare themselves to each other. In his friend group, because the kids are all different ages, and aren’t doing their schoolwork together, he probably couldn’t guess which of his friends was “ahead” or “behind” in any school subject. He has some friends who have autism-spectrum brains, and some who have difficulty managing their anger, and some who didn’t learn to read until they were 10, but because they are not in the social sorting of a classroom, he just sees them as individuals, not as ranks.

Everything my kids know about school comes from comic books, novels, and their school-going friends (and I don’t think they talk much about school with their friends). Silas has recently been on a real Calvin and Hobbes kick. After one of their collections disintegrated, he and Petra pooled their money to buy the four-volume complete set (which was, categorically, an excellent purchase). I imagine this latest deep-dive into one depiction of first grade prompted Silas to say, “I want to meet a bully. Do you think you could help me?”

Calvin and Hobbes comic.
Moe: Hey, Calvin, it's gonna cost you 50 cents to be my friend today.
Calvin: And what if I don't want to be your friend?
Moe: Then the janitor scrapes you off the wall with a spatula.
Calvin: Heck, what's a little extortion among friends?

I looked at my little guy, with his long asymmetrical haircut, pink unicorn t-shirt, and rainbow sneakers constantly untied, and I tried to imagine how it would go, if I introduced him to a fifth-grade bully. Even assuming I could find such a person, this experiment was not going to go well.

I did the next best thing, taking to Facebook, and posting a request: “Were you a bully as a kid? Would you talk to my son about it?” The response was overwhelming. Many people posted about being bullied when they were younger, and in some cases, they shared that they later connected with their bullies as adults, and found out that they were going through a rough time at home during that period. A number of people messaged me privately to share that they had indeed been bullies as kids. They talked about what fed that behavior—parental abuse, someone bullying their little sister, financial instability, peer pressure. One person I went to middle school with sent me a message describing a time she had witnessed me being bullied and how she had come to regret that she hadn’t tried to stop it. I couldn’t believe the outpouring. Clearly people carry these experiences with them well beyond their childhoods.

Two of them spoke to Silas, including one person who has been a mentor for him in the past. I think that conversation was the one that gave him the most to think about. He had a hard time imagining that this person could ever have been a bully; they’ve basically made a whole career out of being kind. And yet, this story was true.

After all of this “research,” I asked Silas what he had learned about bullying. He said:

  • Bullies usually are bullied.
  • People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed.
  • Sometimes people bully others in groups, because the group is doing it.
  • Bullies can grow out of it and become great people.

As a coda on this, I gave him the assignment of taking one of the comics where Calvin is being bullied, and try to imagine what happened before it. His first attempt was…kind of missing the point.

It’s a little hard to read, here’s a transcript:

Moe: I wonder if Calvin will be my friend today…

Moe: Hi Calvin! Can you please be my friend today!

Calvin: What if I don’t, BUD?!

Moe: hmm…

Moe: Then I’ll give you a spatula and introduce you to the janitor!

Calvin: AHHHH!

Moe: Huh, I thought that would be more reassuring….

We talked about how this interpretation invalidates Calvin’s experience. It’s not helpful to gaslight bullying victims. Most people who are bullying are not doing it by accident. I asked him to go back and try again, this time thinking extra hard about the moment before. Here’s where we got:

Transcript:

Other bully: Hey Mo! Gimme your money or else.

Moe: Wow! I really need more lunch money. <sniff>

Moe: Aha!

Moe: Hey, Calvin, it’s gonna cost you 50 cents to be my friend today.

Calvin: And what if I don’t WANT to be your friend today?

Moe: Then the janitor scrapes you off the wall with a spatula.

I feel like we’re not done with questions about bullies, but I am so grateful to all of those who shared their stories to help Silas begin to understand. It’s been interesting watching him integrate all of this information.

He still definitely thinks that he, as “Friend to Most” could be a one-man bullying solution task force. I hope he never loses that optimism.

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Aili Written by:

6 Comments

  1. Joey Madia
    March 12, 2021
    Reply

    This is wonderful and inspiring from start to finish. For nearly two decades I wrote and toured interactive bullying education workshops with my teen theatre company to middle and high schools. Silas’s insights into bullying are spot on. Having the pleasure of spending time with Silas, he is a truly outstanding young person and this just proves it even more.

    • Aili
      March 14, 2021
      Reply

      Thanks, Joey! He has really enjoyed getting to know you.

  2. Jacqueline
    March 12, 2021
    Reply

    You are doing such a great job raising an amazing, wonderful human being! I like how you approached him about bullying, getting both sides out. Keep up the great work!

    • Aili
      March 14, 2021
      Reply

      <3 thank you! I appreciate your kind words so much.

  3. Brie
    March 13, 2021
    Reply

    Reading this was thought provoking… it occurred to me that in traditional school settings, it is as though emotional intelligence is expected to be taught and learned through osmosis. I wonder what would happen if it was an actual subject in school. Thanks for the great read.

    • Aili
      March 14, 2021
      Reply

      I know, right? Although, I think now, more than when we were in school, they are actively trying to teach emotional intelligence and social skills. My mom was a school counselor for years, and when she worked in elementary schools, she did a lot of bullying prevention.

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