What’s so Bad About Bullies?

– by Walt Mueller
1999, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

Kelly Yeoman’s dad described his bubbly 13-year-old daughter as a charming little angel who would do anything for anybody. She was. Kelly played the tambourine in the local Salvation Army band to raise money for the poor. She spent lots of time visiting with elderly residents at a local nursing center. But Ivan and Julie Yeoman’s bright-eyed and selfless daughter wasn’t treated by her peers with the same respect she afforded others.

For three years Kelly put up with insults and taunts hurled at her by schoolmates. They teased her about her weight, calling her fatty and smelly. At school, they dumped salt on her lunch and threw her clothes in the garbage. During gym class they made fun of what she looked like in her exercise clothes. At home, they would stand outside Kelly’s house yelling strings of insults.

In October of 1997, Kelly’s tormentors surrounded her house on several consecutive nights. Along with their insults they threw stones. After that came eggs and butter, the ingredients for cake. Eventually, the little girl who rarely talked about the constant harassment finally said to her parents, Mom and Dad, it’s nothing to do with you but I can’t stand it anymore. That night, she ingested a fatal overdose of painkillers.

In Kell’s home country of England, they call such behavior bullying. It’s become so common that an Anti-Bullying Campaign has been launched to help parents help kids who are either bullying or being bullied. The campaign’s hot line receives over 16,000 calls a year. In England, they take the problem of bullying seriously. Perhaps it’s time we take bullying a bit more seriously here in North America.

The now all-too-familiar names of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold have been linked to bullying. Just hours after the Littleton school shootings were first reported, a profile of the type of kids who would commit such an act began to formulate in my head. That profile included a picture of young men left feeling powerless, detached, and alone. In my mind I envisioned a number of contributing factors. But based on what I’ve seen and heard so many times before, I imagined the perpetrators at Columbine had boiled over after being squashed so frequently that they had decided to exact revenge by doing some squashing themselves.

I was shocked but not surprised by what happened in Littleton. In conversations with numerous people since, I’ve talked about the role that bullying may have played in sending two kids on a path of destruction. While their violent behavior was wrong and inexcusable, it’s not difficult to see why Harris and Klebold would get to the point of deciding to do what they did.

Shortly after Columbine, Washington Post reporters Lorraine Adams and Dale Russakoff investigated reports that Harris, Klebold, and others were sent further and further to the fringe of their local peer society by a jockocracy – a group of Columbine athletes –  that allegedly enjoyed favored status and played by their own set of rules. The two were constantly harassed, pushed up against lockers, and intimidated in a variety of ways. On one occasion, a carload of athletes threw a bottle at them while the pair was standing outside the school with a friend. Klebold reportedly told the friend, Don’t worry, man. It happens all the time. Adams and Russakoff conclude that some parents and students believe a school wide indulgence of certain jocks – their criminal convictions, physical abuse, sexual and racial bullying – intensified the killers’ feelings of powerlessness and galvanized their fantasies of revenge. Without a doubt, the same thing is happening to outcasts in schools across North America.

Over the past few months, I’ve been asked on numerous occasions to address the Littleton shootings in light of my knowledge of today’s teenagers and their rapidly changing culture. Every time I mention the role bullying may have played, someone follows up by saying, We were bullied as kids, but we never chose to kill people because of it. While that may be true, the cultural context of the bullied has changed so much over the years that there are more and more kids like Kelly Yeoman, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold who get buried under the pressure, see no way out, and choose to respond by inflicting violence on themselves and/or others.

What is it about today’s changing cultural context that makes a growing number of rejected and bullied kids resort to such extreme responses? There are a number of factors which work alone or in combination.

First, more and more kids face the confusing years of adolescent change and confusion alone. The seen and unseen changes that take place during the shift from childhood to adulthood are difficult to deal with. Living through the teen years in the context of loving and supportive home relationships serves as a buffer when peers tend to be at their meanest. The connections of a loving home enable a young person to process difficult peer relationships and respond positively. When the home serves as a buffer and support base, kids can be bullied and still come out better for it. But if they are forced to go it alone due to parental absence and /or neglect, they risk becoming bitter, angry, and even vengeful.

Second, the loss of our culture’s corporately shared moral compass leaves kids to be blown about by the winds of personal preference and feeling rather than Godly truth. The results can be seen in our attitudes and behaviors. Bullying used to be wrong – now we cheer for grown men who get paid millions of dollars to bully on athletic playing fields and courts. And what about the bullied? Rather than deciding to respond to bullying by examining God’s truth to discover God’s will for handling adversity, the supreme guide for making decisions becomes individual preference based on personal feelings. Consequently, there’s nothing wrong with fighting fire with fire. The bullied now bully back.

Third, today’s world of adolescent music and media fills the void left in the wake of parental silence and moral confusion by offering kids plenty of guidance and direction on how to handle interpersonal conflict. Video games train kids to fight and kill. Some kids exact revenge by venting their rage in the video fantasy world. A few take their fantasies off the screen and live them out in the real world. The increasingly popular world of televised professional wrestling fills young hearts and minds with incivility as they view broadcasts where behemoths rumble in arenas packed with people rooting for the bad guy to win. Stone Cold Steve Austin, perhaps the wrestling world’s most beloved star, elicits cheers when he recites his motto –  Austin 3:16 – I just whooped your ass! Musical artists like Marilyn Manson, himself an outcast who was bullied in school, appeals to the bullied and calls them to fight back through hate and fascist uprisings. The list goes on. This steady media diet and all it’s messages is soaked up by impressionable young sponges who, though no fault of their own, have no source of Godly guidance and direction. For the powerless, music and media is a source of guidance, answers, and direction that leads them to the power that has for so long been so elusive.

And fourth, when the church does not reach out to the bullies and bullied, God’s message of hope, peace, grace, power, and reconciliation can’t be heard. If God’s Good News and order for life are never presented as an option, it won’t be an option. Kids are left to search for something else to fill the void. Sadly, the void only grows and a growing number of kids resort to angry, hopeless, and immoral responses that may leave themselves and others hurting all the more.

Parents, educators, and youth workers need to proactively respond to bullying. First, it’s important for us all to understand that the way kids mistreat other kids should be aggressively addressed because no matter how you look at it, bullying of any type is wrong. We must lovingly challenge those who throw rocks, bottles, butter, or insults at kids like Yeoman, Harris, and Klebold. Second, we’ve got to come alongside kids like Kelly, Eric, and Dylan and love them through the difficult times so that life is more attractive than the option of self-inflicted death or revenge. And finally, we must counter the prevailing winds of the culture by providing our kids with the gifts of a loving home that’s a refuge, the knowledge of God’s design for responding to adversity and persecution, and a daily model of God’s truth.

Jesus said, There is a saying, >Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ But I say: Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! (Matthew 5:43&44). With God’s help, we’ll see young hearts bent on hopelessness and vengeance transformed into hearts filled with hope and love.



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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.