A few years ago, I stumbled across an article that was featured in the New York Times. The article, titled “Being Bullied Can Make Kids Stronger,” was a short advice column for mothers worried about their bullied children. The author, Lisa Belkin, along with input from Nancy Prisby, a “parenting coach,” essentially came to the conclusion that bullies could help young children build resilience.
When I first read the title of the column, I almost laughed. I thought it was a joke, until I read the entire column and realized it was serious.
I take issue with the rhetoric that this column used for two major reasons. At the most basic level, it is factually inaccurate. In a study published in 1996, researchers at the Royal London School of Medicine found that there was a strong positive correlation between the frequency of bullying experienced by elementary school children and the frequency of reported stomachaches, sleeping difficulties, headaches and general sadness. None of these health symptoms equate to kids growing to “become stronger.”
Secondly, the column is contradictory in that it states that bullies make children stronger because the experience allows children to confront emotional pain, but it also advises that bullied children can avoid the bullies by becoming more confident in order to make themselves “less of a target.” There is a major flaw in this type of reasoning, because it credits bullies with enabling their targets to develop strength and resilience, yet blames unconfident children for letting themselves become victims.
When I was 5 years old, I spent ten to twelve hours at daycare, for five days a week, for six months. Although this was 15 years ago, I still remember the names and faces of three people there whose actions I did not understand. Two of these people were the same age as I was and often ganged up on me. They thought it was funny that I was so quiet. For hours that dragged on, they called me stupid, pointed fingers at me, shoved me around and told me that nobody needed me.
It amazes me that they were only five years old and had already developed a capacity for such behavior.
I never fought back because I was confused. I needed time to process their hate, because I could not understand why my existence had warranted such negativity from other kids I hardly knew. All I wanted was to grasp their reasons for treating me the way they did, because I felt I could not do anything until I understood them. I never confronted them and I tried to ignore them. Every day hurt, and every hour felt like a lifetime.
It disturbs me to know that there are adults in this world who think that bullies who verbally degrade and devalue their peers for sport somehow also help children become resilient. I would never wish on any child the experience I had, just for the sake of making them “stronger.” My experience with bullying affected me a great deal, so much so that numbing and masking my emotions became easier than showing them, especially in elementary and middle school. I don’t see this as resilience — it was just a coping mechanism that ultimately made me feel empty.
Belkin’s argument that bullying can make kids stronger falls short. There are other ways to help a child develop confidence, and they do not involve telling them they are worthless. The love my parents and my friends gave to me helped me build confidence — the bullies gave me nothing.
I am grateful to my parents and to my friends who reminded my 5-year-old self that my life had value.