By Seth Reid
I’ll never forget the first time I actually had to deal with a bully. I was in the third grade, and every morning I meticulously combed my hair and put on enough hair spray to keep it in place all day long. One morning as I was getting on the school bus, a fourth grade bully said to me in a mocking tone, “Got enough hair spray?” My face reddened, and I did the only thing I knew how to do in the face of such derision: put my head down and stayed silent. Fortunately for me, the bully simply laughed at me with his friends and moved on with his life, apparently deciding that I was not worth his effort. I have never worn hair spray since then.
I wish I had known back then what I now know, after 13 years as a public school teacher, about dealing with bullies. Most bullies back down when faced with opposition. As a teacher, I try to teach my students that you have to stand up to bullies or you’ll be bullied forever.
Not everyone is bullied, though. The majority of students are on the sidelines, quietly rooting for the bullies to get their comeuppance, yet they don’t do anything about it. They need to be encouraged to stand up for those who are being bullied. A group of “anti-bullies,” or peacemakers, has the power to put a stop to bullying. Our duty is to be peacemakers, which means we need to get up and play an active part in making peace and ending injustice. As Christians, it is our responsibility and our access to blessing to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). A muddy spring or a polluted fountain—that’s the comparison Proverbs 25:26 makes to the righteous man who concedes to the wicked. Bullies, once they’ve gained power over their victims, will not stop bullying unless met with a greater force than their own. Teaching our children to not be bullies isn’t enough. We need to teach them to actively say no to bullies and to try to influence their peers to do likewise.
So, what does this look like in the classroom? One of the most essential parts of my job as an educator is establishing a classroom environment of trust and security. Without either of those elements, learning cannot take place. My students quickly come to learn that I am someone they can trust and will provide them with a sense of security. When a student of mine is being bullied, he or she does not hesitate to tell me about it. Students know that I will do something to put a stop to it. When a clear-cut case of bullying is brought to me, I publicly stand up to the bully, call him or her out for the behavior, and empower the rest of the class to become peacemakers by including them in the conversation about right and wrong behavior. The class then becomes a cohesive force standing up against the bully, and they feel emboldened to do so because of the way I model intolerance of bullying behavior. Before long, the bullying stops. My students feel safe and secure. And most importantly, they have been given an example of how to deal with bullies themselves.
As parents we need to teach our children that good will triumph over evil, but in order for that to happen we must take action. We are given a command in Scripture to let our lights shine before others, so that our good works will glorify our Heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16). When we teach our children that it is a part of their Christian duty to stand up for the oppressed, then we are empowering them to actively participate in the kingdom of God. When they stand up against a bully, things may not go well for them the first time. But they will feel good about themselves knowing that they did the right thing. And others will see their act of love and courage and think to themselves, “I can do that, too!” Then the next time bullying happens, instead of just one good person standing up in opposition, there will be two or three. Before long, the opposition makes the bully’s task too difficult. It isn’t worth it. And if they’re lucky, the bully will feel the need to become one of the good guys. I’ve seen entire classroom dynamics shift as the balance of power gets transferred from the bully to the teacher to the empowered group of good kids.
What does this look like in the real world? If the school bus scenario were to play out today, it would probably look a lot different. A picture of my hair-spray-plastered hair would have instantaneously appeared on any number of social media websites, and by the time the school bus arrived at school, dozens of other students would have seen it and added their own mocking comments. I would have been completely embarrassed and humiliated. Can you imagine how much deeper the hurt would have been if, instead an isolated school bus situation, the incident had gone viral?
This is exactly what our children are facing today. The threat of bullying has gone viral in ways that we never experienced growing up. Physical and verbal bullying haven’t changed much over the past thirty years, but now the Internet adds a new dimension of bullying abuse in cyber bullying. Boys are exposed to online content that values physical and verbal aggression (cell phone videos of bathroom fights at school, “roasting” other boys by insulting them, etc.), while girls are subjected to body shaming comments that stem from unrealistic beauty standards they are exposed to on social media platforms. Because of this exposure, behaviors are changing. If you don’t want to participate in a bathroom fight or a roasting session, you are verbally bullied until you do or until another victim has been found. And if you do participate, the loser is then mocked online, which only leads to further social anxiety. If you don’t have the newest shoe style or look a certain way, then you are excluded from friend groups and become the victim of online chats that spill over into verbal bullying at school the next day.
Cyber bullying can be ended the same way as physical and verbal bullying, by the uninvolved bystanders choosing to take the side of the peacemakers. When more people are actively opposing the wicked behavior than are promoting it, the behavior will eventually stop. It’s not easy to be the one brave soul to stand up in the face of wickedness. But as we teach our children to let their lights shine, we must also pray that others will come to see their good works and join them in standing up for what is right.
This article originally appeared in an issue of FUSION.