When I was growing up in the 1950s a common refrain among children was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Since those days, I’ve come to understand the tremendous power that verbal abuse can have on others, and how this damage is further compounded when the abuse is directed at someone suffering from mental illness.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to hear words like “crazy,” “stupid” and “loser” bandied about by public figures in reference to others. Recently I was taken aback to hear a well-known person refer to others as “wackadoodles” adding that they needed to see a psychiatrist or even pay a visit to Bellevue, the famous New York hospital known for its psychiatric unit.
It reminded me of my days as a teacher and school administrator, where I commonly observed some of this same name-calling behavior in adolescents at the middle school level. The victims of this abuse were often children who attended special classes, those who were unpopular for whatever reason or those whose clothing was not trendy. Sometimes students subjected to this abuse came from other countries.
Some of this negative behavior was a result of dysfunctional parental behaviors at home or negative family values. More often, though, such behavior was a result of trying to fit in with popular or influential social groups.
Chronic exposure to verbal abuse has a strong negative effect on a student’s ability to concentrate and learn. Schools provide important opportunities on how to treat other people and how to operate and function in a group. Most importantly, they can offer students, and their parents safe learning spaces and opportunities to reach their full potential.
When grown-ups turn a deaf ear to bullying behavior or perpetrate it themselves, the message to society is that they don’t care, are afraid, aren’t in charge or worse, that they condone such behavior. Sadly, the psychological damage from this type of behavior is not just inflicted on the victim, but observers as well, including other students, teachers and staff. Children and adults sometimes begin to question their safety in a school environment if the principal and other authorities don’t take charge to ensure perpetrators receive consequences and counseling and victims receive support.
The best way to reduce bullying in schools is to make it clear from the outset that bullying is not tolerated, because all students and teachers deserve a place where everyone can do their best. School rules should be explained by adults and put in writing at the beginning of the year. Administrators and lead teachers must make it clear to adults in the school that bullying is fatal when it comes to creating a safe place for all.
Grown-ups should make sure they model the same behavior they require from children. This includes not meting out consequences for students just to make an example of them. If the student has earned consequences and the behavioral policy has been followed, then consistency and following the rules is fair. Making an example of a popular student or a student who has become a “stand out” based on his role as provocateur may make that student more of a star to his fellow students, in turn prompting copy-cat behavior.
It is a sad day for America when adult discourse becomes so coarsened that name-calling like “wackadoodles,” is deemed acceptable or even funny. Such behavior sets a terrible example for our children, neighbors, colleagues and fellow human beings. The best way to address bullying is stop it before it starts. Our society can and should do better.
© Tyra Manning 2018