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Your Responsibility To Run Like Hell

When I was doing the substitute teaching thing in Redstone, the fourth grade this time, there was an incident:

When the kids came back from recess, a kid named Lucus was whining that Deric hit him in the hallway. Lucus had alternated between being helpful and being one of the biggest problems in the class. I basically told him that I didn’t see it and so there isn’t much I can do about it. Then I saw Deric with his head buried in his arms, crying. I’m not proud of my inclination to just ignore Lucus, but there it is. Crying kids are harder to ignore, however. Marko and Lucus basically said that Deric cries a lot (along with Lucus reiterating that he was hit by Deric) and that the regular teacher always ignores it. I was less than entirely comfortable with that (with substitute teachers, I guess, crying works better than mere whining). So what happened, Deric? Todd hit me! Todd, did you hit Deric? Todd replies that he’s not getting involved. I tell him he’s already involved. Todd says he only hit Deric after Deric hit him. Lucus reiterates that he was hit by Deric. A neutral party, Marin, says that Deric did not hit Todd prior to Todd hitting Lucus.

When I was going through school, such things were always black and white. There were the bullies and the bullied. The good guys and the bad. It was aggravating when teachers didn’t see it that way. They needed to take sides. By which I meant, they needed to take my side. Or, in the echelon, the side of me and people and my station.

The Redstone school had a policy that was really quite familiar to me: If there is a fight, everyone who participated gets punished equally. If someone walked up and hit you, it was your responsibility to get the hell away from there. It was, in essence, the opposite of Stand Your Ground. It was Run Like Hell.

I didn’t have a particularly hard time with bullies in grade school. I was not exactly popular, but it was small enough and I was integrated enough that it wasn’t a huge problem, and you were segregated by grade. Middle school was the worst of many worlds. First, it was middle school. Second, it was economically heterogeneous and that shook out in very predictable fashion. Third, the school was small enough that you couldn’t get lost in anonymity, but big enough that there was a lot of stratification and it was important to get to the right caste, which often meant dunking on others. Also, it was middle school.

The sixth grade, my first year there, was by far the worst. I didn’t really know how to handle it and found myself running headlong into a fight with this seventh grader. At the very last minute, I went chicken. I wasn’t afraid of getting beaten up. I was afraid of getting in trouble. That school had the same rules as the Redstone one. You ran or you got in trouble. So I ran. And when I couldn’t run, which was often, I just took it. Because that was pretty much your only choice. Kids pulled down your pants, what could you do? They’d slap you open-palmed and give you a “body glove” (a smack mark the shape of their hand) and… well, you’d take it.

An added wrinkle is that most of this happened in PE, which had another related rule: Group accountability. If someone misbehaved, everyone got in trouble. So if I tattled, the whole class would have to do sit-ups. Who do you think they are most likely to take revenge on? The guy with enough social protections among peers that they need not worry about having backup in the event of a fight, or the guy with so few protections that he can get hit in front of a dozen witnesses and no one will likely say anything? There were cases where the coach literally saw it happening, did nothing more than a vague gesture against “horsing around,” and I was grateful because taking action would have just made the situation worse.

Whether the group accountability rules worked or not depended on what the goal was. Ostensibly, group accountability meant that nobody would slap Trumwill in the middle of the gym or try to push him down on the track because they wouldn’t want to get everyone in trouble. That wasn’t how it worked, so it was a failure. Unless the goal was to keep it out of the teachers’ hands. Nobody said anything, so they didn’t have to deal with the problems. If that was the goal, it was a success.

The first rule, though, Run Like Hell, was unquestionably successful from every pragmatic angle. It kept people like me from fighting back. And while I had to take my lumps and take my hits, I worked very, very hard at deescalation. If the school would have had my back, I would have gotten in more fights. Since I knew they wouldn’t, I didn’t. I avoided the tormentors, took my hits, and eventually learned the art of bribery to get some big kids to defend me from other big kids. That was an education, of a sort.

Fixing the victims may ultimately become the key approach to how we deal with bullying:

The data was revelatory. Though it wasn’t astounding to find out that half of the children reported being the object of taunts, gossip, or intimidation, how they reacted to their harassers was. The key to anticipating victims’ responses, it turns out, is to figure out their motivations for interacting with their peers in the first place. That is, kids who wanted to be popular and feel superior tended to retaliate impulsively. Those who wanted to appear cool by avoiding criticisms were more likely to pretend like nothing happened. And those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.

Promoting an egoless approach to building relationships that encourages children to react in such mindful ways is key to protecting kids from the psychological blowback of bullying. Rudolph’s study shows that kids who are able to respond with care have better mental health than those who respond to stress thoughtlessly. As University of Maine psychologist Cynthia Erdley puts it, “Children who adopt pro-social development goals seem to be well-prepared to deal adaptively with the challenges they are likely to experience.”

On the face of it, it’s pretty galling. This may stop short of blaming the victim, but it is putting the burden on the victim.

But, really, is there any other way?

The bullies at my middle school were able to get away with what they did in large part because they were more willing to withstand the consequence. The story in Redstone ended with one of the kids crying over the detention that he got, and the other showing it off to all of his friends. Do I even need to say which is which? What, ultimately, can you do to a kid that shows off detention slips? There is a philosophy in law enforcement that you should go after the person with the most to lose. In the case of prostitution, the john. In the case of immigration, the employer. Whether they are truly the responsible party or not, they are the ones most likely to alter the behavior. It’s not clear that was what going on, but there’s an argument to be made for it. Less fights is good, right? However you get there.

It’s tempting to pop some Whitesnake into the CD player and chalk all of the above up to lessons and cynically talk about how it’s good to learn that you are on your own and people in authority won’t help you and all that. The stories above were not painful to write. They did not bring up difficult emotions or buried resentments. It was a lifetime ago.

But I think about all of this a lot when it comes to my daughter. She’s five and a half, and shy and a little socially awkward. I fear, at times, she has a rough road ahead of her. While I don’t get mad at the injustices done to me and mine in the past, it does make me mad to contemplate them happening to her. That which didn’t kill me didn’t make me stronger, but it did make me harder. I spent years having to unlearn bad lessons that I learned growing up involving social dynamics and how things work (of which, to be clear, that was only a part). One of the arguments against homeschooling is socialization, but what if the socialization is more bad than good? We can’t shelter them from the real world, but cynics might protest that was an artificial system posing as a rite of passage.

We have no plans to go that route. She is in private school this year, her last year of preschool. She had a conflict with another student and there was some peace rose thing where they aired it out and all was made well. We are saving the money to send her back there again next year. After that, who knows? I’m not really worried that much about academics as she is very self-directed as far as that goes. But I am thinking about all of those above things again for the first time in years.


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Will Truman is the pseudonym of a former para-IT professional who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He is also on Twitter. ...more →

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22 thoughts on “Your Responsibility To Run Like Hell

  1. Empowering the bullied is ultimately the right move, but I really don’t trust schools to get it right. As with your PE example, I expect a lot of school employees will just use the idea of empowering the bullied as an excuse to get away with some empty advice and call it good. There’s zero accountability, even after one of the bullied kids shoots up the place.

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  2. I were to point to one thing that stands out as different my school experience from my kid’s is no fights. I think that’s mostly because hardly anybody walks to school; and P.E. and recess are far more limited these days. And the anti-bullying initiatives seem to be directed at the subtle forms of chick-bullying (everybody has to watch Mean Girls at some point) or recognizing cyber-bullying.

    Obviously, I cannot say no fights ever, but my formative experience was a lot of fights and initiations.

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  3. Zero tolerance is the stupidest school policy towards discipline and I’m really glad that my schooling was done before it. A big problem with dealing with bullies though is that many of them simply don’t care as you noted. You can punish them again and again but they will continue doing it because they seem to derive a small measure of status from it. Unless schools can find a way to ensure bragging about being mean, bullying, and the resulting punishment doesn’t carry any social reward, at least some kids are going to do it. Dealing with the more negative aspects of human behavior like status seeking and socially hierarchy is really tough for school administrators.

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  4. Former OT regular James Hanley shared a post on Facebook of a young man being bitter about parents teaching their kids to accept the different when these people made fun of him without mercy for being a nerd during his school years. One of my observations was that very few people want to raise their children cynically. We all want to be “don’t judge a book by its cover” rather than superficial charm often counts more than deep down qualities even when it is true in the childhood and adult worlds. Raising children cynically is seen as horrible because a lot of it sounds terrible. I’m wondering how many bullies are raised cynically by their parents, taught actively or passively that superficial charm is important and to target the different.

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      • We might think this is horrible parenting and its very morally problematic and ethically challenged but as Dark Matter pointed out, these parents will say that they are training their children to succeed in an unjust world. They would argue that not admitting this means that their kids might end up as human hamburger meat. You see the same for the parents that really push for their kids to excel in school and get into a really good university at the expensive of their childhood. As those parents would reason it, your a kid for about fifth of your life and adult for the rest of it. If gutting the childhood is required for a prosperous if not necessarily happy adulthood is necessary than so be it.

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    • Cynicism is underrated. The word I’d use is “realistic”, and most of it imho is positive. Facing the world as it exists, rather than as we want it to exist, results in functionality and success. I want my kids to have realistic expectations of their abilities, the abilities of everyone around them, the probabilities of success on various choices. The (not a fictional example) kid in my kid’s high school with a “go for broke” life plan on being a famous actor doesn’t have a realistic chance of success, that’s true even if he does actually win the lottery.

      On a side note “superficial charm” doesn’t cut it in most professions, maybe that works in marketing and sales but whatever.

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      • Whether you call it cynicism or realism, facing the world as it exist leads to a lot of self-serving behavior. Sometimes you need to pretend things are how we want them to be rather than how they are to effectuate positive change. A lot of civilization is based on polite fictions. There is also a difference between “chances of you becoming a successful and famous Hollywood actor are non-existent” and the type of cynicism that leads people to justify bullying of people whose only offense is to be different and possess low social status. Most of us don’t want to live in a world where the Heathers are correct.

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        • You see the same for the parents that really push for their kids to excel in school and get into a really good university at the expensive of their childhood.

          I don’t see why “excel in school” needs to be “at the expense of their childhood”.

          It is better to be a live jackal than a dead lion. However it is better still to be a live lion.

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        • Whether you call it cynicism or realism, facing the world as it exist leads to a lot of self-serving behavior.

          False choice. It’s the equiv of some Priest claiming you need (his flavor of) God in order for ethics to exist. Society benefits a lot from cooperation, but yes, on some other levels my kids are in competition with all other kids. Cynicism doesn’t instantly lead to bullying.

          Thus far the big complain (school-wise) I get from my kids is in group projects they do all the work while having to share the credit. I sit them down and explain that yes, the other kids are spunging off them. That sucks here and now, but in the long term lacking work ethic, discipline, and laziness become their own punishments.

          The most popular kid my age in my elementary school and middle school was a loser in high school, and we never heard from him after that. No one just wakes up one morning and discovers they’re a doctor or engineer or running a successful business. It takes a lot of work to get to that point.

          My kids go to public school, many/most children at that age do dysfunctional things. IMHO it’s appropriate to call that out as problematic. My second daughter is in high school, both she and her best friend want to be doctors. Her friend engages in behavior that’s not optimal for setting herself up for that profession. I think she won’t figure that out for about five more years but my kid sees that right now. It’s not enough to say “I want G”, you also need to say “I’m here at ‘A’, to get to ‘G’ I need to do B,C,D,E, & F.”

          IMHO some of the kids in my girls grade are setting themselves up for failure latter in life. I get that I’m very judgemental, I also get that I’ll be wrong a fair amount. They’ll get their act together at the last minute and do something, or they’ll find some nitch I don’t see. The best paid person from my generation may be a guy who owns his own plumbing outfit and he skipped college to bounce in a strip bar. But him being the best paid of my generation wasn’t the way to bet.

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  5. Promoting an egoless approach to relationships is great between adults, but every classroom is full of horrible little monsters looking for an “egoless” kid to see how far they can push them without getting any pushback. It’s in their nature to push limits and kids who don’t set those limits will be pushed until they do.

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  6. Some tales from my old jujitsu instructor’s “bully safe” classes (for kids) seems appropriate.

    I remember watching in disbelief as they went through some submission (armbar, rear naked choke) all the while yelling “Are you going to stop bullying me?”. I suppose it would work. I can’t imagine the embarrassment of a big bully getting taken down and having his arm bent back at the elbow-which can be very painful. Apparently the schools in my area have the same policy–suspend everyone. Given that, and how I was raised, I think I’d be advocating “break the arm”. Hell, you’re going to get suspended anyway–might was well teach the bully a lesson. What’s the phrase? “He won’t feel the pain UNTIL he wakes up.

    If I had my kinds in school, they’d know jujitsu and use it effectively. Note, a co-student’s kid, who is 10 and small, can take down kids twice his size and weight easily. I’ve seen it.

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    • For me, the beginning of the end of my bullying was the day I decided to hit back, and hard. I had a pack of bullies that would jump me on my way home from school. One day in 8th grade, as they made their approach (off campus), I took the heavy 6 foot chain I used to lock my bike (it was wrapped around the frame, but not locked to it, I was ready for them), dropped my bike, and started charging at them, swinging for their heads. I guess when shit suddenly got real for them, they decided that was enough, never had a problem with them after that.

      I got a lot of detentions after that, because I was done. You hit me, you were getting hit back with whatever I could put my hands on (& I got real good at making sure I had something handy and innocuous I could put my hands on). I wasn’t strong yet, but mechanical advantage was my friend. Yet my school had a bumper crop of bullies. By the end of my Freshman year of HS, it was all over. Everyone had gotten the message that it wasn’t worth the pain or trouble to mix it up with me.

      Still, 10+ years of bullying left it’s mark.

      That said, schools might better serve the students by dealing with the bullies in other ways.

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      • This kind off matches the advice I gave my son when he was being bullied in grade school. I told him “Just stand there, let the kid talk and taunt and tease until there is a good crowd around. ‘Cause there will be in a second. And when there is, hit the kid as hard as possible in the nose, you want to bloody it. And then just stand there, waiting to take your punishment from the adults. Everyone will see that you aren’t afraid (though you might be shaking in your shoes.) Everyone will see you won’t accept this behavior. Everyone will know you are willing to risk getting in trouble to stand up. No one will bully you again. And in the end, when you are in trouble, I will stand up for you. But only you can stop the bullying.”

        Not verbatim, but you get the picture. He never had to do this, but he was never bullied again. He now had confidence and you could see it. The idea that he both needed to be the one ending it and he would be supported was all he needed.

        I didn’t want him bullied like I was.

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  7. Without necessarily calling out anyone here (because I don’t know enough about anyone’s particular situation to say whether this applies to them), I do think there is a bad tendency right now to label EVERYTHING bullying and an even worse tendency for the label “bully” to itself be used as a mean of harassment or even bullying itself. I’ve heard people accuse kids as young as 3 of bullying and watched parents race to a school administrator’s office to label the other kid in an age-appropriate conflict the bully because once you get one kid labeled the bully, it totally frames the narrative.

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    • This is different from what you’re saying, Kazzy, but I also think there’s a tendency to think of the world as bullies and non-bullies. The bullies are the bad guys/gals and the non-bullies are the good-guys/gals. I think there’s a lot more gray area there, starting with the possibility that the bullies are sometimes bullied and the bullied are not always innocent in the bullying interaction.

      Even though I say that, I should add that I believe there are indeed often victims. I’m drawing largely on my own experiences, and I have no insight into what others went through.

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  8. The schools I attended had a somewhat different policy from Will’s schools’. One was punished for fighting, regardless of who started it or whether it was self-defense or whether one side was disproportionately stronger than the other. But one wasn’t punished for being hit. It was still a “zero tolerance” policy, but it was “zero tolerance” for fighting.

    At least that was the theory. The practice could be different, and I’m sure the policy suffered from the many drawbacks of zero tolerance.

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  9. The more I think about this, the more I think it needs amendment. Yeah, you don’t want to fight in school as a general rule. But in particular cases, not fighting causes more problems than actually fighting. Just accept the punishment and move on, afterwards.

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