A Faith-Based Response to Adolescent Bullying
By Paul Coughlin
Thirteen-year-old Breanna Davis of Savannah, Georgia, says, ‘‘The first week they fought Alexis. The second week they jumped Devaree. The third week they jumped me.’’
Her bruises have faded, but her consuming fear remains. Her crime? Sitting in the wrong part of the bus on the way home from school with her sister. A bully wanted her to move. She refused. ‘‘He started screaming and spitting in my face and I still didn’t do nothing. Then he smashed my head against the window!’’ When she defended herself, other kids did what an estimated 70 percent of bystanders do. They joined in. They ‘‘beat me up, kicked me, boxed me — everything. The bus didn’t stop. [The driver] kept going.’’
The bullies fled through the emergency exit. Davis was sent to the hospital for a CAT scan. She was an A student before the brutal assault, but who knows what effect bully-based trauma could have on her life. If or when her grades slip, will the two previous beatings she received in front of school employees be taken into consideration? But equally as important, what will the children who attend Sunday School do the next time they see a classmate bullied? Will they give into cowardice, the way an estimated 89 percent of children do today, or will they honor God and His love for justice and use their voice to defend the timid and encourage the weak, the way the Apostle Paul tells people of faith to do? (I Thess. 5:14). Will they show the kind of courage and love that Jesus showed when he said, “Leave her alone” (John 12:7).
Like Breanna, approximately 160,000 school children a day — not a year — stay home from school due to fear of bullying. That statistic dates back to the middle 1990s, so it’s safe to say that even more school-aged children, not less, are staying home from school today. About 85 percent of bullying takes place in front of bystanders, yet a measly 11 percent intervene on behalf of the target.
I help adults figure out what to do when a child they love is being bullied at school. Most are parents, but there are a surprising number of grandparents who ask for help as well. I admire their desire to help their children, grandchildren, and even neighborhood children, who are usually unable to rescue themselves from the horror of bullying. They need adults to intervene, and I admire how these adults are able to push past fear, anger, and related emotions that keep other parents paralyzed or ineffective.
I have also noticed that many of them adhere to beliefs that make it difficult for them to be truly helpful. Here are a few of the beliefs that trip them up, making it harder for them to help the way they want to.
Many think that bullying is a bothersome but relatively harmless rite of passage into adulthood. They often paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, no fan of faith in God, and say that the experiences in life that don’t kill us make us stronger. Kids, statistics, and the Bible say otherwise.
Talk to kids who are being bullied at school, and you’ll discover soon enough that they do not feel stronger. If you can get them to talk, you’ll discover that they feel hopeless, one of the most dangerous states of mind for any person. They feel small, and many hate themselves. During the rare moments when they do talk honestly, what comes out of them is the heavy language of despair, misery, gloom, and exasperation. “Hope deferred makes the heart grow sick”—not strong, says the Bible. “But a longing fulfilled is the tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12).
Targets hope for rescue, and for too many, it does not come. Contrary to what some parents believe, bullied children are sick-hearted, not big hearted. Contrary to well-meaning movies, most are not capable of self-rescue. Their longing fulfilled, their tree of life, must be provided by adults and peers who possess courage and who are able and willing to use force justly on their behalf, which is part of the definition of integrity. And children who were bullied as kids suffer more depression and low self-esteem than kids who were not bullied. For many, the problem doesn’t “go away.”
Some Christians tell their children that they are being bullied because of their faith. Yet in reality, few kids are bullied due to their faith, or for that matter because they are overweight or wear glasses, which are two other popular myths. The main reason children are bullied is because they are non-assertive, the subject of an upcoming article.
Still more Christian parents, quoting Jesus, tell their children to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) when bullied. What’s remarkable is that when Jesus was slapped on the face by the guard of the High Priest, He did not turn his face so the guard could slap him again. Instead Jesus responded, "If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?" (John 18:19-23) Jesus not only defended himself with words, He confronted the bully and demanded an answer for his unjust treatment.
Since Jesus does not contradict himself, we are given a valuable lesson into what he really meant. He wants his followers to not return an insult for an insult. Jesus, explained C.S. Lewis, does not want his followers to be neither motivated nor consumed by revenge when something wrong like bullying is done to them. But—and this is a key insight into a faith-based response to adolescent bullying—self-defense is not the same as revenge. This fundamental truth is at the heart of Lewis’ essay, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” A child can defend himself while at the same time not abuse or demean another person.
In the articles to come, you’ll learn what you can do as an adult to help a child who is the target of bullying. You’ll learn what you can do to help bystanders to become the kind of Good Samaritans that Jesus praised. Help for bullies will also be provided, many of whom are headed for at least one run-in with the law by the time they are 24.
This article is the first in a series of articles that explains just how prevalent and damaging adolescent bullying is to children, and what an appropriate response is from the faith-based community. Read part two: Help! My Child is Being Bullied
Paul Coughlin is the Founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides anti-bullying curriculum to Sunday Schools and related organizations such as Awana. He is an international conference speaker, high school varsity coach, talk show host, and author. His books include No More Christian Nice Guy, Married But Not Engaged, and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps.
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