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I was bullied intermittently throughout my childhood, but in seventh grade it became particularly severe.  One boy named Tim bullied me daily until I came up with the idea to pay him a cookie at lunch in order to turn him from my tormentor into my protector.  That he accepted the idea—that in fact he one day punched another boy who’d started pushing me around—astounded me and only testified to the capriciousness with which bullies often choose their targets.

Bullies do in general tend to stand down when their victims stand up to them.  But circumstances often make that quite difficult.  Especially when the bullying is condoned by the social group in which it takes place, standing up for oneself takes enormous strength that few children—few adults, in fact—have acquired.  But the opposite also seems true:  when no one in the social group tolerates bullying, bullies not only have trouble finding a victim but also often feel intimidated enough to stop seeking one out.

Thus the responsibility for preventing bullying lies with all of us together.  Group dynamics may produce many negative effects on individuals, to be sure, but it’s also hard to dispute their beneficial capacity to promote pro-social behavior.

Often, however, for a group to be mobilized into action, a spark is required—a single person standing up loudly and firmly against the action of a bully.  Where such sparks go wrong, though, is in standing up against the bully himself.  This simply provides the bully a second lone target.  Instead, when observing bullying behavior, a better strategy might be to initiate a reaction in other observers to quickly form a vocal group consensus.  With others behind you, then, you present the bully with too many targets to manage.  Like an alcoholic facing a group intervention, the likelihood of changing the bully’s behavior increases dramatically.

This same principle applies in the adult world as well.  Though childhood bullies can outgrow their bullying ways, many times they don’t, growing into adults who bully not with their fists but with their words.  Standing up to adult bullies, however, may be hard in a different way (for example, the bully against whom we must stand may be someone in authority, like our boss, and standing up to them may risk more than just more bullying)—but the principle remains the same:  find the bully’s peer group and enlist them in creating disapproving public opinion.

It remains all too easy in life when we aren’t the victim of bullying or abuse to tell ourselves another person’s suffering isn’t our problem.  But whether we recognize it or not, we stand or fall together.  For what isn’t our personal problem today may easily become so (or become the problem of someone we love) tomorrow.  The power inherent in groups is both enormous and something any one of us can trigger.  It’s something we don’t hesitate to use for selfish reasons.  Why then shouldn’t we trigger it for selfless ones too?

Next WeekHow To Manage Diminishing Tolerance

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  • First that picture is instinctively evil to me but maybe it does something for you.

    But on the subject of bullying at one time I had a problem and was fortunately some sort of Christian then. I remember standing up to him and telling him that Christ said to turn the other cheek and I was doing it and dared him to hit me again and I got right in his face and acted crazier then him. He backed off and I never was bothered again. The concept worked again the few times I ever felt threatened later in life in the military or where ever. Mostly just getting back in their face seemed to solve the problem.

    Getting some group to stand up with you seems harder than standing by yourself to me. Dealing with a bully boss would be scary but then I rarely ever had a boss. Lucky me.

  • True! Changing the norm of the group creates a change that has a deeper effect than simply telling to stop or freeze, fly or fight. Challenge day is a nice example how to change the norms of a group and create openness (https://www.challengeday.org/).

  • Thanks for the post, Alex. I was sometimes the victim of bullying as well and didn’t lose the fear of being bullied until sometime in my 20’s—when I reached Shodan in Aikido.

    My eight-year-old son was being victimized at school earlier this year. He is in top shape, but very small for his age. I struggled with how to give him the strength to stand up for himself and gave him his first martial arts lesson. I struggled somewhat with this decision because it is not wise to take on an opponent where he is strongest, and just a few lessons was not going to do much good.

    I was delighted two weeks later when he found his own solution. He and several other victims formed an anti-bullying club. They made a pact: 1) not to bully anyone, 2) not to play with or talk to anyone that bullies anyone. Furthermore, displaying a propensity for forgiveness, if someone did be a bully, they were only excluded for two weeks before being allowed back into the group. He signed up over 30 kids across the 3rd and 4th grade.

    I am very proud that he figured this out and the solution is non-violent and recognizes the spark of good in all people.

    Thanks for what you do,

    CJ: Wow! Your son is inspiring!


  • I think you’ve hit right into the center of what the issue is. I’ve noticed it in a different capacity in my time as a teacher: there are great classes full of dynamic kids who want to learn, and completely blase classes where the students just cannot be motivated. I’ve found that often the difference is that there are a few students in the former group who will always raise their hand and participate, regardless of what their peers think, and that ends up spurring a similar reaction in their peers sooner or later. But there have to be those one or two kids who initiate the dialogue. I think one of the best skills we can teach our children is to engage in that way with their peers, regardless of how uncomfortable it may sometimes feel initially. Bravo to CJ’s son, above—what a great example for his peers!

  • I was bullied throughout school, to the point of illness in my teens. It was led by one terrorist, but the other’s complicity is still shocking to me. One strong personality can shape a group’s behaviours, even into adulthood. BUT adults can be embarrassed out of behaviours early on.

    The bully—an awful, vicious woman—recently requested me on Facebook. Honestly bizarre. I was unsurprised to realize she had no friends from school, and was divorced young. And I live well.

  • I think it is the rare young child who can appeal to/form an anti-bullying group. A child who is bullied may be singled out because he is isolated, to begin with. How can that child suddenly form a group or even access a group for support? I think this solution is quite adult.

    Alex, your solution at the time was to give a cookie to the bully. I am wondering why you did not suggest that strategy as a line-of-defense.

    When my children were young, my middle child, who was being picked on (the old-fashioned term for bullying) by her older sibs said calmly one day, “I am not going to fight with you.” She won that battle, though she didn’t win the war.

    It is a parenting skill to teach your children, some of whom will be bullied and some of whom are the bullies, that you do not make yourself bigger, better, more important by making the other guy smaller, weaker, less worthy. It just doesn’t work that way. Is every parent teaching that lesson?

    Is every parent a good example—or do some of us succumb to road rage or other forms of hostility (bullying)?

    In the martial arts, the tenets, which are learned by heart, are: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. We learn self-defense, not attack. Never attack. One of the symbols is making a fist with one hand, but covering it with the other hand—meaning, you have the strength to fight, but you cover that power with an open hand.

    There are many paths to generosity of spirit, as opposed to bullying/aggression. We must teach our children . . . and be exemplary.

  • When the adult bully is in a position of influence, i.e., the sole breadwinner in a family or the boss in an organization where geography and/or other circumstances prevent people from changing employment, group power is superfluous even when the group recognizes/knows that an individual is a bully. The dependency of the victims is paramount, and there will be little movement or even attempts to “out” the bully because there are few alternatives. I suppose the battered spouse could be thought of as the ultimate iteration of this behavior.

    I’ve lived and worked in both kinds of environments pictured here, and as far as I can determine, the only real solution is to physically remove oneself where possible from the bully.

    Funny though in all the current coverage of “bullying” today in the media—everyone has been bullied, but no one is ever the bully.

  • Civilization entails setting up mechanisms to protect the weak from the bullies. If bullies thrive, it is a reminder that the protective mechanisms are insufficient, inadequate or callous or maybe are in league with the bully. It needs concerted action of sufferers and potential victims keep the protective mechanisms of the society on their toes.