Bullying is not a serious problem.
There, I said it. Somebody had to. Because all the rest of you are losing your grip on reality, blaming the problems kids face on… kids. What a convenient thing for parents to do.
In the wake of a rash of teen suicides and violent outbursts, some of the trendiest articles have become people with high opinions of their own opinion offering copious amounts of useless advice on how to deal with the problem of bullying. Too few of them acknowledged the reality that bullying has always, and will always, exist (as it does, incidentally, in every other primate society) or ventured to stray and say that the problem may not lie in the media, or even in parents, but in something more systemic.
Our society places a very tremendous burden on children at a very early age: success. And we define success very narrowly as financial comfort and security. This is what nearly every child in America, regardless of whether his or her home is predominately conservative, liberal, Christian, atheist, progressive, environmentalist, all-American, blue-collar, or white collar, is taught from the time they’re reared to the time someone they don’t know is handing them a diploma they couldn’t care less about.
You can see it in a glance at suicide rates by country. There’s a study here. The United States and Russia are at the top of the pack by an impressive margin in terms of numbers of suicide per 100,000 (third column), but nations with comparable numbers to ours include Japan, France, and China, aggressively industry-dominated societies where children are driven hard to succeed.
There’s nothing wrong with parents guiding their children toward success. In fact, it is probably a parental imperative. The problem is in being ordered to succeed, as according to scripture you must cleanse yourself of the innate ugliness with which you are born if you are to gain God’s love. The stakes are just as high for success in America as they are for religion. The comparison is apt; this is the most religious industrialized country and there is something almost religiously fervent about the instillation in children of the importance of success.
The very idea of failure is unacceptable. This is the single hugest motivator of bullying – pick on the kids who aren’t going to succeed. “You failed the math test, you’re going to be stuck working at a 7-11 all your life.” “How are you ever going to get a girlfriend with a haircut like that?” Even targeting kids based on sexual preference is a manifestation of a societal block on the idea of homosexual success or truly immense stature (of like, an Elvis or Einstein nature).
And parents pump their kids full of it all the time. Everyone on TV is rich. Every day is rigidly timed and orchestrated for maximum efficiency and discipline. Soccer practice, piano lessons, speech therapy, and even summer camp are all designed to shape, conform, mold, and prep for success the children of this country, and failure in any of them is tantamount to failure as a human being and failure as an American.
We’ve constructed and widely accepted a national narrative which is intensely psychologically damaging to children - we tell them the world is becoming dangerous and then openly pin all our hopes on them. The Chinese are right at our heels in every measurable field, and the world is going to get harder, faster, smarter, more complicated, and more demanding. What pressure. How true any of it is doesn’t really even matter but to a specialized class of people, a very small percentage for whom global finance is actually relevant. It just so happens that these are the same people who own the news media, who own the publishing houses that print the textbooks, who fund the research at universities and sit at the heads of companies, and so on, so they have an awful lot of influence over the way the rest of us think. The narrative that ordinary, average Americans, who might own a store or play an instrument or grow tomatoes and live in a community, need not necessarily be affected by a collapsing economy isn’t going to prop up that collapsing economy for the specialized class of the fantastically wealthy who don’t produce and who actually do depend on it.
Why should any child self-mutilate or kill themselves, or even bully another kid to the point of such behavior, if they aren’t overly wrought with concern for their futures? Mayfield isn’t charming because of all the white faces and fresh-cut lawns. It’s the children’s naivety. No kid would kill himself over his homosexuality, for instance, no matter how severe the bullying, if he or she weren’t worried about the effect it might have on their prospects for our narrow view of success.
Ultimately, children who succumb to it want to be accepted by the agents of their bullying. Truly psychologically damaging bullying is always done at the hands of someone with more social capital. There is bullying severe and constant enough to drive kids to self-mutilation, shootings, and suicide, and there are other motivators for bullies such as the culture’s still-lingering hostility toward outsiders and anyone different. In any instance, I don’t place primary blame on the bullies themselves. Many of the kids who self-mutilate or show up prematurely dead aren’t mopey, underachieving sad sacks who get picked on. Many of them hide whatever pain they’re feeling, and it is very much more pressingly important to determine the source of that struggle. It probably isn’t that kid Tommy, who pulls down your son’s pants in front of girls at recess.
I blame bullies for dozens of teen suicides a year. I blame parents for their kids’ lousy behavior. I blame society at large and the national narrative as the basis for shoddy, too-aggressive or too-babying parenting. I blame the nation’s most powerful financial movers for driving this insane obsession with success. But we can move on as a society and put a huge dent in bullying at the same time by imagining ourselves freed from obligations of financial wealth.
But these are less simple answers. People want to confront the issue of teen self-mutilation and/or teen suicide head-on with only the most surface-scratching problem, the bullies. Noble parents everywhere want sterner penalties for bullying, and more outreach and support for the bullied. I promise there are enough frantically nervous, overprotective parents out there; more coddling is not what every single victim of bullying needs. Everyone could use a little more tenderness, but children don’t like feeling weak. It antagonizes that subtle subconscious reminder that they have to succeed by walking a very thin and very specific line and doing it better than 10 million other kids in the nation.
The reason this subtler, less frequently considered source of the problem isn’t closer to the forefront of our national discussion is because the solution is absolutely unacceptable. We have to de-emphasize success. This requires big, widespread change in our national outlook and narrative. By its very nature, it is not very lucrative, and it isn't an option Americans are trained to consider. Some would probably recoil from it in horror. Of course there is danger in the world, of course the success of this nation is abstractly and immediately important, and of course I need to teach my kids about it. Fine, if you believe that to be the case. It's one worldview and it's a seemingly plausible one. But its truth still wouldn't absolve it from ultimate responsibility in your children's crummy outlook. We have taught them about America not as a history lesson about a state founded by fairly well-off British expatriates on the backs of free black labor which became the most technologically advanced society and offered some of its citizens a few unique freedoms, but as a religion to be adhered to and worshipped at above even Christianity. Naturally God favors the USA in our national narrative; how silly would we be to tell a story where that wasn’t the case? Imagine the kind of pressure that puts on a kid. (God favors Kim Jung Il, too, if you want to ask those people.)
If you want to blame bullying or the media for outrageous behavior, you can probably find something to support you. But it's like blaming the cough you have on a problem with your throat. There's something else going on, a virus triggering an immune response that is generating excess mucus that is blocking your airways. If you're at all serious about taking care of the cough, you have to do more than rub something on your throat. You have to take care of the virus. If you're at all serious about tackling the problem of teen suicide and bullying, you have to do more than simply reach out or increase punitive consequences. You have to find out what's really driving these kids nuts and take care of it. Since this is ultimately the responsiblity of society's adults, you must find the courage to blame yourselves.