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:

  1. Teach the principles. Principles and well-taught doctrines affect behavior more powerfully than rules.
  2. Resolve to make sure the harassment stops. Decide right now that you are not going to let it continue, no matter what it takes.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


Image courtesy of Nasrul Ekram, see licensing terms.

4 thoughts on “Bullying at School or Church?”

  1. Ah, yes! Taylor even turned out to be a friend, when he came over to our house. But never at church. The reasons why kids bully are strange and twisted.

    I remember once, when living in the Cascade 2nd ward, a new kid moving in. I jumped on this as my chance to shift people’s attention away from bullying me. I think I was 10, maybe 11. So I started trying to harass the kid, hoping people would follow my lead and eventually leave me alone. Turns out I was the last one to find out the kid’s dad was BYU’s new athletic director, which meant that none of the kids would ever harass him, no matter what he did. My point: Some kids try bullying to deal with bullying.

    When I was 12, I vowed to always be nice to everyone. Always. So long as I’ve kept that vow, it has always served me well.

  2. Does bullying happen in LDS denominational schools?
    While it is true that public schools are non-denominational, the bulk of the popualtion in the school I attended while younger is LDS. Bullying most definitely did occur. People are people whatever their denomination, and kids can be vicious simply due to their basic egocentricity; they don’t realize how much what they do hurts. I don’t know anyone who was bullied for not being LDS, but I do know several who were abused for being ‘Molly Mormon’ or ‘Peter Priesthood’. “We are Mormon too, so we have the same standards, so quit trying to be better than us.” The worst bullying I ever experienced actually came from an LDS teacher at this school, who used bullying one child as an example to make the others fall in line.
    Yes, even at the LDS schools of higher edcuation, bullying does occur. But what I saw of it in my four years was mostly limited to thoughtlessness or bad temper, and was readily remedied when someone had the courage to step in and point out the problem to the offender.

  3. I have been bullied for over one year now. Rumors and lies follow me at church but I will not leave. I believe God put me there for a reason and despite everything, I love my church. I know who is behind the bullying and yes, it hurts. It is painful and leaves its own kind of scars, but I am strong. The bullying consists of sending out emails that are filthy…spoofing my address so that church members actually believe I did this. My friends are being targeted and I am being isolated. It is okay. I serve a God who sees and hears. I trust He will use this for good.

    1. Susan, I’m really sorry to hear about this, and I appreciate you posting this here.

      Good for you for putting your relationship with God—and your ability to stay and influence change for good—above the personal hurt you feel!

      May I offer a couple of suggestions? These come from my life in the Church and also as a business/leadership coach. The following two principles have a huge impact on our own sense of peace—and they are powerful for influencing others around us.

      1) Carefully clarify before reaching any negative conclusion. Look for ALL the possible explanations for why something is happening, then keep looking if your conclusion is negative. If it’s still negative, ask them to make sure you got it right. In my experience, a negative conclusion (about what someone did or why they did it) is wrong 95% of the time because of the fundamental attribution error we all tend to make. We are too unimaginitive about other people’s motives or the realities of a situation, but we usually give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. I teach this principle all the time and I STILL find myself making this mistake, especially when emotion is involved.

      Example: In 1999, I attended a regional conference in Nashville, TN with a non-LDS friend (“Dandy” Bandy) who was interested in the Church. Elder Erying spoke. Afterwards I asked Dandy how he liked it. He said it was a good experience, but Elder Eyring’s actions during the closing prayer bothered him. “I don’t know what made me do it, but for some reason I opened my eyes during the prayer and saw him on the stand, shuffling his papers with his eyes open, like he wasn’t paying attention at all.” I assured Dandy that I knew Elder Eyring was a man of God from recent, personal, life-changing experience with him, I was 100% certain there was an excellent explanation, and I explained this principle. Neither of us could figure out a likely reason, however, and the conversation moved on. (Dandy joined the Church soon afterwards.)

      Years ago, I told that story to Steve Montrose, an LDS friend and business associate. As his business coach, I was helping him look at a thorny business problem involving someone else’s actions. Steve said, “I can’t think of a good reason for Elder Eyring to be doing that either. I’d sure like to know why it happened.” Steven wasn’t judging or concerned, he was just puzzled. I assured him that there was a good reason, Steve agreed, and we moved on. I may have offered a prayer after that, asking for insight to understand, but I soon forgot about the conversation.

      A week later, I sat in an inspiring stake leadership meeting like the one I attended in 1999 with Dandy. During the closing prayer, while my mind was focused on the prayer, an impression suddenly flooded into my mind, giving me an answer (and counsel to pass on) about the problem Steve Montrose faced. I silently expressed appreciation for the insight and continued listening to the prayer. The Spirit whispered, “write the impression down.” I agreed to do it after the prayer, and I continued listening to the prayer with my eyes closed. “Write it down NOW!” insisted the Spirit.

      “Ahhhhh!” I said to myself as I opened my eyes, shuffled through my papers to find my notebook, and recorded the impression during the prayer. I was LIVING the likely reason for Elder Eyring’s actions a decade before. Two answers had come in one experience.

      Only now, as I write this, do I ALSO realize that during that very conference, Elder Eyring had been teaching us the importance of recording our spiritual impressions and acting on them right away, the instant they come to us! It appears that Elder Eyring actually practices what he preaches, and the Lord is more concerned with us recording and acting on the whisperings of the still, small voice than He is concerned about closing our eyes and bowing our heads during every prayer.

      “For it is the Spirit that giveth life and not the letter; yea, the letter killeth.” (From memory via Elder Packer., 1980 or 1981 Conference talk.)

      P.S. The important part is above, but “lest we should offend them” (Matthew 17:27), here is my favorite explanation for the “bullying” you experienced:

      The emails you describe exactly match the behavior of many viruses that infect computers nowadays. Your computer does not need to be infected. The spoofing usually takes place on someone else’s computer and uses their address list, so it looks like the filthy messages (advertising to a virus-infected site) came from you. This subtle approach makes it harder for people to find the infected computer and fix the problem, making further infections more likely. So make sure you carefully clarify before reaching a negative “bullying” conclusion! 🙂

      2) Follow the Lord’s pattern for resolving offences. The Lord and his servants are so smart! Whether in the Church or in business, the only right way to resolve a problem like this is found in DC 42:88-93 (and less perfectly recorded in Matthew 18:15-17):

      88 And if thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone; and if he or she confess thou shalt be reconciled.

      89 And if he or she confess not thou shalt deliver him or her up unto the church, not to the members, but to the elders. And it shall be done in a ameeting, and that not before the world.

      90 And if thy brother or sister offend many, he or she shall be chastened before many.

      91 And if any one offend openly, he or she shall be rebuked openly, that he or she may be ashamed. And if he or she confess not, he or she shall be delivered up unto the law of God.

      92 If any shall offend in secret, he or she shall be rebuked in secret, that he or she may have opportunity to confess in secret to him or her whom he or she has offended, and to God, that the church may not speak reproachfully of him or her.

      93 And thus shall ye conduct in all things.

      This is an important, powerful principle in business and in the Church. Any other approach will do damage.

      Examples of well-intentioned but very damaging approaches people sometimes try:

      Going to the leader or bishop first. This could prejudice the bishop against them, and neither of you will have all the information you need to get a good resolution. A wise bishop will teach the principles in this section and send you back to discuss with them first, reassuring you that if you can’t get a good resolution, you should come back to him and the three of you will resolve it together. (Exception: In cases of abuse or danger to you or others, get an empowered authority figure involved first so everyone stays safe. However, that authority needs to do a lot of non-judgmental listening first, before offering correction!)
      The leader or bishop takes it to the other person for you. Best case, this will waste a lot of time. Worst case, it will create bad feelings between everyone, including the other person and the leader! Why? This prevents two-way communication between you and the person who may have offended you. That communication is crucial for becoming “of one heart, and one mind,” which is essential for teamwork and a Zion people This approach also takes incomplete, negative conclusions to the second person without allowing them to clarify, so the second person will feel unfairly judged (rightly so) by both the leader and the person who felt offended.
      The leader or bishop takes it to the other person confidentially, without disclosing who you are. This is the worst of all. In addition to all the problems of #2, the second person now feels
      like “anyone or everyone” has a negative opinion of them. This creates a hostile environment overall.

      Don’t go there. Instead, prayerfully consider a good way to discuss the situation with them. then ask for their perspective in a relaxed way. Honestly listen. Reconsider your assumptions. You’ll almost always be reconciled. If not, THEN go to the leader and ask for a 3-way to resolve it.

      And remember that 95% of the time, it’s not going to be nearly as bad as you thought. Things are usually far more positive than we imagine. 🙂

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