My father (a black belt) taught me how to handle bullying, but not the way you might think. Here is a Christ-centered approach.
An old friend in Australia asked me recently about my children’s experiences with bullying in school, and whether it happens in LDS denominational schools.
Our discussion started because of this tragic article (caution: some PG-13 content). Some people commented that not only was the bullying a problem, but Brodie’s handling of the bullying was a big issue. Who was watching out for her? Was she ever taught to be assertive? Why was she so emotionally vulnerable?
A Christ-Centered Response
My children did get some bullying in public schools, but they got detailed, careful training from me on how to handle it without resorting to bullying themselves or being stepped on too badly.
Where did I learn those skills? By being bullied myself in junior high and high school in public schools, and most importantly, by getting careful coaching from my father.
I was a year younger that the other kids, and young-looking anyway, and reasonably smart. Not a winning combination. My father was a 4th degree black belt, and he taught me some basic self defense, but that really wasn’t what helped me, at least not alone. The empowering principle for me was found in the teachings of Christ. My father taught me to defend myself a little bit (maybe), but then taught me that turning the other cheek was of paramount importance. He taught me that there are highly-specific, divine promises attached to obeying that commandment (some of which are specific to LDS doctrine as far as I know), and I sensed that he was right.
It was therefore a choice I made, a gift to the other person: “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and … despitefully use you, and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” I always thought that phrase “the children of your Father” was just a nice way of saying “be like Him,” but I am now convinced it refers to much more than that: specific, precious blessings that are often overlooked but clearly promised.
Friends Instead of Enemies
During this time, a new kid showed up on the bus and (meanacingly) told me to tie his shoe for him, because I had untied it. I calmly told him that I hadn’t untied it, and I wouldn’t tie it for him, he could do it himself. He told me that if I didn’t tie it he was going to beat me up when I got off the bus. I declined respectfully, without cowering.
When I got off the bus, he got off too, and started to count to ten, loudly explaining that when he reached “10” he was going to pulverize me. All the other kids were watching. I walked slowly and deliberately, at a normal pace, not responding to the threats. (All of this came from a combination of the above teaching by my father.) Finally, I heard him running closer and closer, but I held my course. Then the running stopped and I braced myself to be hit. Nothing happened, and I kept walking, not daring to look back.
A minute later I found him walking next to me. “What’s your name?” he asked. He said he was Scott, and he asked where I lived. I pointed vaguely in the direction of home. He said he lived that way too, he had just moved in, and he wondered if I played basketball. I said I did, but not very well. He then stunned me by inviting me to his house to shoot hoops with him. That was the start of a long and good friendship. (I just reconnected with Scott via social media after all these years.)
I am so glad I responded that way instead of choosing some other approach. Thank you, Dad!
So, in school, I was bullied a lot psychologically, but I learned to handle it, and today I’m actually grateful for it! (I learned to spot the underdog, to understand their feelings, and to reach out to help them out.)
I was only actually hit twice, and I deserved it both times (I had acted in a way that was inconsistent with the principles I had been taught by verbally assaulting the other person, so they retaliated). Several times I ended up being friends with the other kid. They were trying to fit in in the best way they knew how at the time. I’m betting they even totally forgot about their bullying over time.
Bullying and Harassment Even at Church?
My friend wanted to know especially about bullying at LDS schools. We really don’t have LDS denominational schools except at the college level, not in the US anyway, so I couldn’t help him much there. However, I have seen youth taunt each other at Church (it happened to my wife a lot growing up, and she didn’t attend for two years in part because of that).
As a leader, what do you do when youth harass each other at Church?
It’s simple. You have the responsibility to make sure that everyone feels safe at church, all the time. You cannot allow it to continue. Period.
And how to you do that without creating a bigger problem yourself? How do you intervene in a Christlike manner? It’s easier than it sounds when you have the right plan. I recommend these six steps:
- Teach the principles. Principles and well-taught doctrines affect behavior more powerfully than rules.
- Resolve to make sure the harassment stops. Decide right now that you are not going to let it continue, no matter what it takes.
- Start small. Use the smallest possible bandage to cover the wound, no larger, no smaller, but the bleeding must stop. Simply stopping and looking at the offender may work at first, or stepping towards two people that are having a problem. Then back away if it has stopped.
- Keep it positive, but escalate as needed. If it continues (that time or over days or weeks), escalate your intervention by stopping and saying their name gently. Wait until the misbehavior stops. Repeat as needed, and clarify the problem only if necessary. Remember: least effort possible, but it has to stop. Avoid embarrassing them if possible.
- Never yield. The perpetrators must never get the reward from this behavior, so make sure, with iron resolve, that you don’t let them win at the game of intimidating others. This rule is absolute, so escalate as needed until the behavior stops.
- Always keep your response Christlike. You can’t do the Lord’s work with Satan’s tools. While being firm, cover your steel hand liberally with velvet.
For the Strength of Youth teaches these standards clearly to the young people. This is a great resource to use as you emphasize this st Church:
Show interest in others and let them know you care about them. Treat everyone with kindness and respect. Go out of your way to be a friend to those who are shy or do not feel included.Use language that uplifts, encourages, and compliments others. Do not insult others or put them down, even in joking. Speak kindly and positively about others so you can fulfill the Lord’s commandment to love one another.
A Last-Ditch Escalation Example: When Things Get Really Bad
Even when things get really bad, you have options. My son got harassed mercilessly by one young man at Church that nobody knew how to deal with–leaders included. All the smaller escalations had failed to stop the problem.
My son finally begged me to let him punch the kid (something John had never done to anyone before), but I told him he couldn’t do that, it was inappropriate. John said: “Then what do I do! I can’t take this any more!!!” I could see in his eyes that he was telling the truth.
In a moment of (I think) true inspiration, I pointed out that the young man really liked WWF wrestling. John agreed. I pointed out that John had learned some real wrestling skills. “Ask that boy to stop. Tell him that he has to stop. Make sure you ask him, clearly and respectfully, at least three times. Then, if he doesn’t stop, do a takedown without hurting him or getting angry, pin him to the ground in front of everyone, and hold him there until he agrees to leave you alone.”
It wasn’t long before the whole scene played itself out. The kid flailed around wildly, to no avail. He could not get free. A lot of the youth were watching. The young man was mortified, but he finally agreed to leave John alone, and John let him up. That boy never, ever bothered John again, and they didn’t become enemies.