Should Kids Fight Back Against Bullying?

Photo purchased from Bigstock.com.

How involved should adults get in bullying incidents?

I begin to wonder as much after reading celebrated journalist Emily Bazelon’s brilliant book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, which reminds me of a traumatic childhood memory.

I’m nine years old and at sleep-away camp, located in scenic Maine.

With gorgeous playing fields, state-of-the-art recreation facilities and a beautiful lake, this is an ideal location for a Hollywood movie. Inside my bunk, however, things aren’t as nice. Jonathan Bernstein is calling me names again.

“You lost us the game, you stupid little punk,” Bernstein shouts, blaming me for striking-out against a pitcher from a rival camp.

I remember Bernstein’s smug face, and how he walked like a thug, arms crossed and shorts sagging. I can best describe him as a miniature version of Eminem, despite the anachronistic comparison. Once we return to our cabin, Bernstein pushes me to the ground and kicks me while I’m down.

“Stay there,” he says, albeit with much more colorful language.

I have had enough and for the first time, I push Bernstein back.

I remember a counselor nearby, listening to his Sony Walkman and content to let things play out.

I grab Bernstein by the shirt and throw him against a nearby wall. He’s startled, but he quickly recovers to bang my head repeatedly. I have a good fifteen pounds on Bernstein, and I use my advantage to toss him across the room.

Just as Bernstein prepares for another round, the counselor finally intervenes.

Bernstein doesn’t bother me again, and I don’t recall him or me getting in trouble — or, for that matter, spoken to about what has happened. All the same, I have had enough. I call my parents and plead with them to take me home.

Six years later, by a strange twist of fate, I spend another summer with Bernstein — this time at American Trails West, a sort of traveling camp that takes teens around the country. It takes me a few minutes to recognize Bernstein. I’m surprised to see him smiling, shaking hands with new acquaintances.

We both give each other a polite nod, as if to say “no hard feelings.” We’ve grown up, and while we don’t speak to each other the whole summer, there exists a mutual respect.

Perhaps Bernstein and I didn’t need an adult to intervene, after all.

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I think I turned out well. I have great friends, a caring, supportive family and an awesome teaching job. I have no idea where Bernstein is today — but I like to think that he’s living an equally great life.

I don’t tell Bazelon about Bernstein, but I do ask her if adults are too quick to get involved in bullying cases.

“Adults can leap in and then try to solve problems for kids in a way that…doesn’t actually help them build the skills to overcome adversity themselves,” Bazelon says.

I agree. I don’t at all condone physical altercation — nor have I ever been involved in one since camp. Still, I’d be lying if I refused to admit that I took great pride in using my words, as well as my fists, to stand up for myself back at sleep-away camp.

I ask Bazelon when adult intervention is needed, and when we should back off:

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a formula for that. Right? I mean, this is like why you get paid the big bucks, so to speak. Over time you kind of develop judgment about this and hopefully have good judgment about it. And hopefully there are people at the school who, you know, your guidance counselors like you were saying, who you can turn to if you’re making a judgment call that feels tricky. But I do think you’re absolutely right that the basic emphasis, when possible, should be on helping kids gain the skills and the capacity to figure this stuff out themselves. It’s just that I always feel like I have to say that with a caveat of like “but sometimes teenagers really get in over their heads.”

I appreciate Bazelon’s position, and to be fair I never told her about my fight with Bernstein. I’m not sure what she would say about our fight, and I doubt she would consider this permissible as “figuring it out” ourselves.

But I wholeheartedly agree that each bullying case is unique. In Sticks and Stones, Bazelon takes readers into a painstakingly detailed account of three distinct episodes — including how bullying, and other major underlying factors, played a big role the 2010 suicide of fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince.

In some cases, I wonder if adults, in trying to help, do a disservice by encouraging kids not to push back against bullies. In an Oct. 31 CNNLiving article, “Why telling bullying victims to ‘just fight back’ doesn’t work,” author Carrie Goldman cites an incident when just the opposite proved true.

I went to Catholic school. Got bullied. Told Dad. He said, knock him in the mouth. He will leave you alone. Next day I got bullied. Punched Billy in the mouth. End of story. We are best friends today and I haven’t been bullied since. Write letters, document facts? Make school aware? Whaaaat? How political we have been? What a shame. One slap can change things for sure!

Goldman goes on to say, “this type of superior force’ advice shows a lack of appreciation for the complexities of the bully-victim dynamics of today’s world, where bullying often takes place in new arenas, such as on the Internet.”

I think Goldman is misinformed, at least inasmuch as she believes more bullying occurs online.

Several months ago, I spoke with Sameer Hinduja, director of the cyberbullying research center and author of School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time. Even with the explosion of technology, he has not seen a rampant increase in bullying, online or offline.

“It’s not affecting a majority of kids, it’s affecting a minority of kids,” Hinduja says, while echoing Bazelon that it’s still very important to avoid trivializing or dismissing legitimate experiences.

As I write this article, I wonder how I would feel about a kid being picked on pushing back. I’m don’t at all believe that this is always the answer, nor should it ever be a first resort for solving anything.

All the same, there is something to be said about a child, having been pushed in the sandbox, pushing back.

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David Cutler

David Cutler

A high school history and journalism teacher from Massachusetts.