Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bullying a Heartbreaking Pandemic

[Part 1 in a series]

My heart broke last week when a parent told me about his son, who every morning cried, screamed, and pleaded for his dad to let him stay home from school. He was afraid of a bully.

“(Jay) is just totally scared of going to school,” the dad said. “I’m emailing and calling the principal and his teacher. The only thing he tells us is that other kids call him ‘stupid’.”

I’ve taught children and teens Taekwondo for 11 years. If I had a dime for every time I heard a heartbreaking story of a student being bullied or an adult recalling a painful, peer-bashing trauma from childhood, I’d be richer than Bill Gates and Oprah combined – on the cover of my own Fortune 1 magazine.

The Karate Kid was a box-office hit this summer, but for many U.S. youths, school bullies are not the fiction of Hollywood movies. They are emotionally unsettling realities.

The problem didn’t start with six Massachusetts teens accused of bullying 15-year-old freshman Phoebe Prince to suicide in January. Bullies torment millions of U.S. youths every year and incidents are commonplace in school hallways, lunchrooms, locker rooms, playgrounds and gym class.

Consider the following statistics from recent government surveys and reports:
• Bullying occurs in 21 percent of U.S. elementary schools, 43 percent of middle schools, and 22 percent of high schools.
• Fifty-two percent of U.S. students witness bullying at least once a week.
• Sixty-six percent of U.S. students are teased or bullied at least once a month.
• An estimated 160,000 children miss school every day because they fear bullies.

Who gets the brunt of bullying? Sixth-graders were bullied more often than any other school-age group, according to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education report. Bullies also frequently target classmates based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.

If these statistics trouble you, think about the percentage of bullying that goes unreported. I know from experience that youths are tight-lipped about being bullied. They’re ashamed to admit it, and oftentimes will keep quiet until either the pain is unbearable or parents or other adults find out by accident.

For example, a mom of one of my students came to her son’s elementary school to bring him lunch one day and saw him circled by his classmates on the playground. They had tackled him, taken his shoes, and were playing keep-away. Her son chased after his shoes in vain. It was only then that he admitted to her that one of the boys had been bullying him for weeks.

One of the most common reasons parents bring their children to train with me is to learn self-defense.

“He gets picked on at school,” they say. “We want her to learn to stand up for herself.”

I oblige. It’s my job. Unfortunately, bullies keep me in business. Why?

Turn on a cable news program and listen to how pundits debate each other. Watch news footage of a political rally. Be a fly on the wall while an adult drives in rush-hour traffic. Watch an episode of The Real Housewives of Any City, U.S.A., where women are celebrated for berating each other. Some Americans are culturally invested in judging and ridiculing each other, and our kids see it. They mimic it. And some think nothing of the feelings they hurt, or are unconscious of the power of their harsh words.

While reality TV housewives might be able to dish out and receive insults unfazed, our 6-, 10-, and 15-year-olds don’t yet have the self-esteem or life skills to defend against such taunts and torture – to ignore the unfair and oftentimes unfounded criticism from peers.

How can we stop this unconscionable behavior?

At its core, bullying represents a lack of respect for others. If children and adults diligently practice respect, we can cure this social plague. But adults must first change their own judgmental tendencies, because children learn more from their parents about how to interact socially than anyone else.

As a teacher, I rely heavily on Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s 10-point character development system called Basic Rules to Live By. My students understand that rule No. 10 – “We must respect our teachers and peers at all times” – is non-negotiable. If they violate this rule, they risk losing rank.

They are rewarded, however, for showing respect. One of my elementary-age students was named 2009 Student of the Year at Tao of Texas MAI because he intervened on behalf of a classmate who was being bullied.

To ensure that girls like Phoebe Prince graduate from high school and have a chance at a long, healthy and happy life, we must find ways to make respect for others more attractive than wielding power over peers.

Will Tao of Texas MAI’s mission to promote self-respect and respect for others in every child, one child at a time, one day at a time work? I have hope.

Jay may have hope, too. As it turns out, his elementary school has a zero-tolerance policy on bullying. The day his dad reported the incident, counselors talked to Jay, then to one particular boy, then to both of them together. The bully was told that his behavior was unacceptable and that there would be consequences if it continued.

Jay still resists going to school in general, but his dad says this week it has more to do with a scary spelling test than a threatening classmate.


  1. I wonder how many bullies think they're just having a little fun and have little idea of the impact of what they're doing. I'd be willing to bet that kids who bully have probably been on the receiving end at one point or another.

  2. While it's true that bullying "represents a lack of respect for others," another fundamental truth (and I believe even more so) is that bullying represents a lack of self-respect. We understand how a person feels about themselves through their action towards others. Great post.