Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oh My

It may have been the most frightening conversation I have ever heard.

I know I'm going to get slammed for describing the two speakers, but I'm going to. They were both about 14, both very blond, both very pretty, both very slim. They were with a group of other young people and two chaperones but they had chosen to sit at a separate table and therefore were set apart from the general laughter and teenage 'shenanigans' at the other table. Joe and I were sitting at a table just a few feet from them and we were of the age and type to be invisible to pretty girls of 14.

They were, at first, talking about some girl at school who had not made the trip. Apparently she was a good friend but she had been disallowed to come by parents who 'didn't get it'. Then they turned to talking about another girl, one they didn't like, one who was also not there. They laughed about some of the mean tricks they'd played on her. They described her looks, her weight, and her 'brights' in unkind, unflattering and incredibly ugly terms. As they talked their faces changed, people don't seem to realize that ugly attitudes change features. A face in one light is pretty and soft, in another is hard with sharp features and cold eyes. These girls, as they spoke, became what they despised.

One of them then said of a teacher who had chastised them for their behaviour, 'She doesn't get it we don't do this because we hate her we do this because it's fun.'

I've never heard anything more frightening.

Now I'm going to chance it by describing something else. When they got up to leave, they were both wearing school jackets, both with the name of the name of the school. There were three words in that name, the last two were 'Christian Academy'. I was somehow surprised, I thought that maybe those schools would be exempt ... schools that focused on any faith ... where kids were taught basic values. But perhaps it takes more than values to put the brakes on devaluing others, maybe it also takes character.


Twilson9608 said...

My husband went to a Christian school up until high school. He said the school itself was what turned him away from religion. It was only about three years ago that he went back to church and back to Christ. People like those girl give true Christians a "bad name".

M said...

I think that the best values that could inform public schools are as good as the best values that could inform religious schools, and that often neither type does those values much justice.

theknapper said...

My experience has been that belonging to a religous group does not mean that people behave any better....often hiding behind their religion. That doesn't mean there aren't many people who live according to their beliefs.

The Untoward Lady said...

Ah, apathy and indifference for the well being of others. Widespread, institutionalized sociopathy.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I was concerned about how I wrote this because I didn't want the 'Christian Academy' thing to dominate the post, as faith and religious issues can. The comment that cruelty was based on 'fun' not 'hate' absolutley frightened me. I was naieve thinking that cruelty and heirarchy might not exist somewhere in the world of the young. Oh, foolish me.

J. said...

I have watched this dynamic unfold with kids just slightly younger than those you are describing. Even kids who can be incredibly compassionate and kind can get pulled into this behaviour. Listening to and watching this kind of thing makes me sick but I have made myself do it a few times to try and understand what is going on.

I think there is a certain "rush" that comes from being cruel and superior - that is the fun they are describing. I find that naming this with the kids - the fact that for whatever reason it does feel "fun" and good when tearing someone apart - takes a little of the power out of it. Teaching that sometimes what feels good is not in fact good matters. Taking some time to reflect with them that while this kind of talk feels "good" it is not the same kind of good feeling they get when they are kind and connected with a friend or simply having fun laughing together - I have found that helps sometimes. I also just tell them it is just as wrong as stealing and sometimes are feelings are not good guides for doing what is right and necessary.

Kids (and a lot of adults, I think) need constant reminders and encouragement to do what is right. Sometimes hauling off and hitting a sister for something feels really good - but I have to teach my kids that it isn't okay, no matter how good it would feel. I have to teach my kids that sometimes they have to keep their mouths closed instead of saying the hurtful comment on the tip of their tongue.

I think anything that adds to a sense of superiority only adds to this dynamic - and unfortunately most religious groups do teach that their way is superior to others.

Tamara said...

I always wonder if girls like that watch "Mean Girls" and realize it's about them.

And the "Christian" school means nothing. Kids are the same - maybe worse. In our experience, the teachers were worse. That's where my middle son was called a "R" about every day - more so after his brother with Down syndrome was born. One time he was called "R***ed like his brother." And the kid that said it was the son of TWO of the "Christian" teachers at the school.

And like Twilson9608's husband, my older sons won't go near a church these days - and it has a lot to do with their educational experiences.

So sad.

Anonymous said...

I went to a christian school through 8th grade and then an inner city public high school. Kids at the high school were much more accepting of difference, probably because there was more of it there. Also there was little favoritism or cliques at the high school.
I'm 37 and still I have serious issues with christianity, primarily due to my educational experience.

Belinda said...

RE. some of the comments: It's heartbreaking that parents pay for a faith based education, never dreaming that the experience will drive their children away from faith. There is something going very wrong about that and very sad.

The post made me sad for those girls, too, who had somehow ended up with mean spirits at such a young age. May they be softened and humbled by life, if not their formal schooling--and I pray it happens soon.

FridaWrites said...

Bullying is horrible in the U.S., as elsewhere. If my kids weren't in the schools they are locally, I would homeschool. Recent news stories about someone bullying a 7-year-old dying girl (they apologized finally) and bullies laughing at their victim's funeral casket in Ohio. People refuse to take responsibility for their words and actions.

Incidentally, from one of the most fundamental Christian schools in our area--a group of them caused me to quit teaching when I was very young--they were that disruptive. They drink, party, harass young moms in front of their kids (me, their neighbor). My optometrist had to pull her daughter out of it and put her in a more gentle school. I don't get it with some places, how it becomes more like a club or elitist.

My children's principals have been wonderful with bullying prevention and rapid intervention when something does occur. I don't know if they had personal experience or if they just really get what can happen.

Houston schools are having problems with a new anti-bullying proposal because it includes anti-homophobia. What objectors are not getting is that homophobia affects everyone--even their star athlete can be tormented for being gay--whether or not he or she is. They've lost students who have committed suicide because of being tormented both for being gay or being perceived as gay.

BTW, shoulder pain plus a busier schedule when it's eased up mean I haven't been able to read/comment as much. Just wanted to let you know I haven't abandoned blogging/blogger friends.

FridaWrites said...

Huh, I hadn't thought of it this way before, but I was bullied by those students. I was afraid to walk to my car by myself. I got many harassing phone calls at my personal home number.

Susan said...

I have a haunting memory of having made fun of a classmate when I was 14 - a girl who really needed a friend. I pray for her whenever I read a story like this and am reminded once again. What regret! My parents would have been horrified at my behaviour. And you think I would have known better since I had been the victim of bullying so often myself.

Character comes from the inside out. It doesn't matter what you're taught. Far more important is what is modeled for you. But most of all, I think, it's simply and profoundly a matter of what we choose to take out of what we have experienced. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him act like a horse... you can send a kid to Christian school, but they have to decide themselves what they will appropriate and at what point in their lives.

It's sad that people base their rejection of God on experiences with those who have so badly misrepresented Him...

tekeal said...

oh this makes me sad. and scared. and more sad.

Anonymous said...


I'm sorry, I know you didn't mean to focus attention on the Christian school part of your post. But for me it does push a personal button. Some of this is my own baggage based on certain past experiences I have had with some Christians I have met and not really anything to do with you.

As an atheist, it does bug me to hear some Christians talk about Christian schools or churches as if they are the only way that morality and moral values, good character, kindness, a sense of ethics etc. can possibly ever be taught or learned and that anyone not being raised with a certain set of religion-based values automatically cannot possibly have any sense of values at all. I know that this is not at all what you meant. Although your faith is clearly important to you, and although your faith is also to some extent apparently where you derive some of your values, I don't think you would try to claim that an atheist necessarily automatically cannot arrive at similar values from a different path.

As I said, some of this is my own baggage that I'm bringing along because I *HAVE* met some Christians who *DO* very much seem to believe that values without religion is an automatic oxymoron. I have had Christians express astonlishment to me upon discovering that I made certain choices in life about my behavior based on a certain sense of values--they had not thought that I would have values because they knew I was Christian. So I have been hit by a lot of judgmentalism from some Christians who seem to think that atheism automatically means immoral, incapable of having values, incapable of true compassion, etc. In other words, some seem to think that religion (which some of the Christians I've met seem to define as meaning only Christianty while others will count any religion, or at least any monotheistic religion, even if not their own) has somehow cornered the entire market on how to teach a sense of moral values or a code for decent behavior.

I know this isn't you. But your surprise that Christians could be cruel (or at least, that two girls being raised as Christian, which is not automatically the same thing) did tread a little close to the line for my comfort because, to me, believing that Christians are automatically likely to be nicer people is not that many steps away from assuming that atheists might not be, or even can't be.

I do respect that religious faith has deep personal/spiritual meaning for many people. And I do respect that, for many people, their personal values were, in fact, instilled at least in part through their religious teachings. I just wish that more Christians out there would respect that atheists can and do arrive at similar values even if via a different path. I think some Christians do, I suspect including you. But that line in today's post did make me squirm.

Andrea S.

Anonymous said...

Apologies for somehow managing to post twice (dang technology!). Please do delete the duplicate, thanks.

Andrea S.

Sarah A. said...

I was bullied and miserable at the big public school I went to, so my parents transferred me to a much smaller Christian school for my last two years of high school. It made a huge difference in my life. No one there was ever cruel to me. It was like taking a deep breath after years of being slowly strangled. Yes, some of the kids were a bit elitist, but they practiced their faith in a way that many Christians don't. They really tried to do the right thing. It always hurts me to hear about schools that call themselves Christian but practice hate instead of love. It sounds like I'm really lucky I ended up at the school I did.

Dave, I appreciate your blog so much. Thank you for sharing these stories with us. They make a difference in my life, too.

Ellen said...

I have my children in a religious school, but have had my disabled son in public, private and parochial schools. My experience is that children are very much the same in all schools. When the bullying behavior occurs, however, the religious school has been able to correct it within a religious context, and also has more freedom to encourage (or force) appropriate interactions with the children who are different, if only in school. The public school did a great job stopping the bullying, but was unable to do much about the isolation by the other students.

I think that the age of the girls Dave saw is the worst ... the middle school years. I am shocked at what I have seen and heard done by children at that age.

Kristin said...

This kind of behavior horrifies me no matter where it comes form.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

It is horrifying to think that this is fun to these girls - and I am sure they are not alone. I wonder where they have learned to do this - and that it is fun. Who are their role models?


Anonymous said...

Sara A.

It may well be that the school did endeavor to teach the right messages of love, etc., but for whatever reason the lesson hasn't "taken" yet with those two particular girls. I found it interesting that the girls said that the teacher who had chastized them "didn't understand" the real reason they did this, that their behavior wasn't rooted in hate but in enjoyment (of their own behavior? of the other girl's reactions?). It sounds like someone there did try to teach the right message but that her effort fell flat because she didn't connect to the real underlying motivations behind these girls' behavior.

Andrea S.

ivanova said...

I went to a Quaker school that prated on about Quaker values all the time, and kids got beat up and bullied routinely. I don't think the label means anything. That does sound like a chilling conversation to hear, especially when I can't think of any way you could have intervened.

Ettina said...

I'm another addition to the list of kids turned away from Christianity by a 'Christian school' (though technically, it was a French Immersion school in a very Christian neighborhood, not actually a Christian school).

To be fair to Christian schools, though, I also had a very bad experience in a couple of non-Christian schools, though at least the teachers didn't bully me there.

It is certainly chilling that they found it 'fun' to tear a kid down like that.

Anonymous said...

Now that I've gotten my "personal hot button" reaction out of the way, I'll react to Dave's intended main point:

Yes, it's discouraging to know that these girls simply thought it "fun" to torment another person. Unfortunately I suspect that is the motivation behind at least some bullying that goes on in some schools (though I am no bullying expert). It does highlight that the way to address bullying needs to involve a lot more than simply teaching people not to hate, or not to feel disgust at a person because of who they are. (Though I'm sure both of these are probably also sometimes rationalized "triggers" for bullying.) You have to reach them in the place where they think there's nothing wrong with "having fun" by tormenting people.

J. might be on the right track with his/her/hir suggestions. We might need other approaches also.

Part of the problem might be a lack of identification on the part of the bullies with the bullied. In theory part of the answer might be finding ways to encourage that sense of identification. But if someone has already decided that it is "fun" to torment someone then they may have a built in resistance to learning that empathy. (This ties in, though not directly, with Amanda Bagg's recent post on Empathy at ballastexistenz.autistics.org)

Andrea S.

Sheva said...

oh if I could go back in time. If I could have the confidence and even looks I have now ( it takes time to grow into the Jewish features). I would do some serious butt kicking, because kids are cruel. I wonder what their parents are like, probably just as bad.
On a side note you can send a child to the most religious school, but the values at home are the true influence. If you go to some sort of academy that teaches A B an C and go home and your family does D E and F then all the values maybe taught in school go south. IMO

Becca said...

I don't follow any organized religion - I find too many hippocrytes following them.

I just put up a blog post about bullying, and later this afternoon found an article on the web that said this:

"...it bears mentioning that this generation of teenagers has been raised on near-daily lessons in tolerance and “everyone is specialness” from their first Sesame Street episode to their Senior Proms; there is a disconnect, somewhere, between theory and practice, and that disconnect is a killer."

There is definitely a disconnect, no matter what the person's background is.

M said...

Religious schools aside, I've been thinking about this a bit. Specifically, what it is that the girls are finding "fun".

My intuition is that it has to do with power. It feels good to exercise power. Chillingly, the easiest access (maybe the only access) that these girls have to power is a sort of "power over" - over their peers. Kids in general are disempowered, and this might help explain the use of cruelty as a way to explore power. Giving our kids "power to" - to make decisions, to influence their worlds, might be one way of dealing with cruelty.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Hi all, I've been away from the computer for most of the day, some great thought provoking comments to read here. Thanks for the honest sharing, that's what I hope for here. I admit to finding the concept of 'bullying for fun' terrifying ... it's something I've never conceived and it troubles me deeply. Really deeply.

J. said...

Yes, I agree that it is about power - social power, and that is a HUGE thing for girls that age.

And yes, this generation of teens has been raised on messages of acceptance for all and anti-bullying but I would hazard to say that those messages are often sent and/or interpreted as I am special and everyone needs to accept ME for who I am and no one should bully ME and let me list off all the times I have felt bullied. We need to do more to teach kids to hold others, not just just themselves, in high esteem and to reflect on their own bullying behaviour, not just their experiences of being bullied or always talking about the bully as "other."

Whether we know or accept it or not, I am sure that each of us has made someone else feel belittled or bullied at some point in our lives. Being open to that idea is the first necessary step to changing our attitudes and behaviours. I believe this is the piece missing in our anti-bullying and self esteem programs in schools.

If kids see their behaviour as fun, not bullying, they need better education. This kind of thing IS terrifying.

Anonymous said...

young, pretty, blond. I assume they were white girls?

Anonymous said...

I think that this kind of vicious unkindness is particularly prevalent amongst teenagers, and has a lot to do with fear, insecurity, and a feeling of needing to be perceived as being as important, or more so, than their peers.

For over ten years I worked as a prison visitor with young male offenders. In the prison I visited, I often worked on a special wing where the more vulnerable prisoners were placed - typically, those who would be most likely to be targeted for bullying by the other prisoners. You would think that housing the more vulnerable young men together would have fostered a safer and kinder environment. Unfortunately, the opposite was often true. If anything, the level of bullying on this wing was even more intense.

The explanation? Nobody wanted to be seen as 'bottom of the pile', and a way to avoid this was to belittle, humiliate, 'bad mouth' , slander and generally bully others so that they were perceived as being somehow lesser in importance in worth and status. The aim was to keep the focus off one person's frailties, vulnerabilities and difference by deflecting attention onto those of others.

The answer? Difficult to sum up in a few words, but it seems to me that society somehow needs to shift its' thinking and values at a very fundamental level. Firstly, there needs to be a cultural shift that strongly promotes the message of respect for the individual and a recognition that everyone has equal worth as a human being, regardless of appearance, abilities, creed, etc...
Secondly, and I feel very strongly about this, society needs to recognise that we are putting our young people (and not so young people too!) under tremendous pressure to 'be perfect' - perfect in appearance (surely a subjective view?), perfect in abilities, perfect in academic achievement, sports, etc etc. Then they have the expectations and values of their peer group, which may be diametrically opposed to those of their parents and mainstream society.

All of these expectations and pressures mean that we are ending up with an awful lot of confused people.... trying to conform to so many sets of 'norms' and values, that they struggle to consider and formulate their own views and values, and to become authentic, thinking people in their own right. No wonder they follow the herd...it's the easier and least confusing option.

It seems to me that possibly more than any time in modern history, we have a culture that emphasises appearance and acquisition over character and integrity. We receive media messages at every turn, telling us that this is the way things should be if we want to achieve 'happiness' (Think Aldous Huxley's, 'Brave New World') It's a culture of hedonism which emphasises conformity of a particular kind, and conveniently glosses over the plight of the poor and disadvantaged.

Until we can somehow address these huge societal issues there will always be the kind of problems you have described.

Society needs to give a strong message that bullying behaviours are totally unacceptable. It must actively promote recognition of the worth of each individual, allied with the need for self respect, self worth, and accountability. It must foster respect for, and celebration of our real or perceived difference as part of the cultural 'norm'.

Rather a tall order, but surely, something to aim for!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I seem to have posted my message three times! Don't know how this happened and can't remove them!

Baba Yaga said...

I am unsurprised by the idea that cruelty is 'fun' for teenagers. Recreation, filler of boredom, restorer of status (or cover for lack/loss thereof) - it's an all-purpose pastime.