On grownups and teenaged bullies

So, I’ve been thinking about these girls who bullied Phoebe Prince for three months before the fifteen-year-old couldn’t take it anymore and hung herself with a scarf her sister had given her for Christmas.  It’s a tragic story, not the least for her poor sister, who found Phoebe’s body hanging in a stairwell.

It’s also tragic, however, for the girls who harassed their classmate so mercilessly that she saw no way out but to kill herself.  Because, I’m betting that these girls are more or less normal teenagers – insecure, feeling their oats, and just generally clueless about life.  We all know how the song goes, because we surely sang it throughout our teens.  Even the happiest of teenagers hummed a few bars.

Come on, talk to me here.  How many of you bullied or teased someone?  How many were bullied or teased yourself?  Probably most of you.  Because that’s what teenagers do, right?  They get a little bit of power and have no fucking clue what the hell to do with it, so they get drunk on it and abuse it.

Now, hopefully, in most situations, the victim is strong enough to withstand it and the perpetrators think the better of it after a few rounds.  That’s the best-case scenario, right?  It’s a normal part of growing up.

Well, I’m gonna have to call “Bullshit” on this one.  Hell, yes, it’s a normal part of growing up.  But that doesn’t mean we just sit around drinking beers with our thumbs up our asses and hope everyone comes through the fire with only mild burns.

Acne is a normal part of growing up, yet we take our kids to dermatologists.  Crooked teeth are normal, yet we go to orthodontists.  So, sure, bullying is normal, but that doesn’t mean we leave our kids to figure it out for themselves.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: kids have no fucking clue what they are doing.  It’s the grown-ups’ job to help them, teach them, guide them.  That is equally true for algebra and for social relationships.  When a group of girls gets carried away by their own power, they need adults to reign them in.  They have no idea how to do it for themselves.

Maybe we all need to spend less time worrying about whether teenagers are having sex and more time teaching them how to handle social situations.  Because sex?  Also a normal part of growing up.

The bullies were let down by their adults.  No one helped them learn to be kinder or more civil.  No one set the limits they needed, no one gave them the lessons they needed in the line between acceptable and unacceptable.  The adults just stood aside and waited for them to outgrow it.

Unfortunately, Phoebe Prince won’t get a chance to outgrow it.

17 responses to “On grownups and teenaged bullies

  1. People worried to me when I was contemplating homeschooling that my children would miss out on the socialization that comes from school. Good. Some people come out permanently stamped with an X on their back, some people come out leery of other people, and some people come out with a well-honed survival or killer instinct. Of course, some come out unscathed, but I don’t know one person who doesn’t have some battlescar from middle school or high school.

    Those kids were monsters, but they were kids. If convicted, this will follow them for the rest of their lives, particularly the boys who have been accused of statutory rape and will be labeled a sex offender.

    The adults were a bunch of Dr. Frankensteins who watched their creations roam the countryside without doing anything.

  2. As I was dropping my niece off at ELEMENTARY school this past Wednesday, the kids were walking to school were mulling around the doors to the school (as it was not quite open yet)….. first I heard a few random comments, children teasing other kids about what they were wearing, and I fumed in my seat… wondering if any of the other parents in attendance would speak up (they would not)…. then it quickly turned into verbal sparring where threats like “i will beat you up until you have to go to the hospital” started flying… I had enough, while i had tried to call the school in the previous moments (they were not answering) I finally yelled, “that’s enough—all of you THATS ENOUGH” and what did these brazen little farts do next, they tried to determine whose parent I was…. presumably so they could pick on my niece next, I finally did reach a school official and they did immediately send someone out, and so far my niece has not been tormented, but my day was RUINED, all I kept thinking was here I am sending my son to kindergarten next year to be among these heathens? I know we all have to face mean kids in our lifetimes, but when did they become so brazen that they do it in front of an adult and if they are called out on it–there is NO remorse… scary times indeed.

  3. I agree with you. What is natural is defecating in a corner. Kids are toilet trained. That is socialization and it is relatively recent in historical terms. I’ve seen adults bullying other adults, and the people around them trying to be “nice” and ignore it because they don’t want to make a scene or stand up to them. We need to teach each other how to stand up to bullies by standing with each other. And we should require that school culture deal with bullying seriously.

  4. Phoebe’s story broke my heart. Cruelty isn’t something that should be passed off as normal and needs to be treated way more than acne.

  5. My husband had a horrible time with bullies. I remember some stuff but nothing that scarred me overmuch. I worry for my sweet little girl; she’ll be the daughter of an immigrant in a little village and my husband says she might be targeted for that.

  6. I don’t know…these kids went beyond normal bullying, they harassed this girl daily, there’s no way they didn’t know it was wrong but they continued to do it.

    Maybe it’s because I was bullied, maybe because this child was an Irish immigrant to MA like I am maybe that’s why her story caught my attention from the start but I honestly do not share your sympathy for her tormentors.

    I agree that the adults let the victim down, her mother complained more than once and no action was taken. But…these bullies continued after she was dead, they had messages on facebook (I saw them myself) which continued the abuse, it was all a big laugh – until the law took it seriously. I say they got their just deserts and I hope they pay the price for this poor child’s life and the pain and suffering they have caused her family.

    Like you I have zoned in on her sister and how unfathomably horrifying it must have been to find her. I find myself near tears when I read reports of the story.

    I see your point they too were not taken to task by the responsible adults and perhaps if their tauting had stopped when she died, if they had been shocked into regret and remorse by her suicide, I might share your sympathy but as it stands I think fuck them I hope they rot – harsh I know and I’m sorry for that but that is my honest feeling.

  7. Boliath,
    I think you misunderstand my outrage at the adults who did not teach these kids to be sympathy for them. I think adults need to teach kids NOT to be like that, and the school district must share culpability for refusing to do its job.

  8. I get that Emily, I’m sorry if that didn’t come across, I guess I’m blinded by bias in this case.

    I agree completely that adults need to teach kids not to bully and give them the skills to stand up for themselves or another kid if they are being bullied. The school district definitely failed here and I am glad to see them being taken to task for it.

  9. I do not sympathize with these kids. Friends of mine on Facebook are friends with some of the people who bullied me, and even over 25 years later, it makes me seethe that they got away with it. People were also awful to me when I was a little older about things pertaining to my romantic relationships, so that part of her story really gets to me.

    But my husband deals with people who have been in “the system” since they were juveniles, and it’s hard to get out of, even if you do “reform”, and it’s not a system that makes reform easy. Plenty of people burn in that particular Hell every day, and that punishment doesn’t satisfy me.

    I don’t know how to fix it, but a criminal conviction just won’t do it.

  10. For heaven’s sake: YES. Amen to that “kids don’t have a clue” line. We adults have to step it up every now and then.


    One of your posts was voted at Best of the Best JP. Goodies to be had; come on over and check it out. And congratulations! xo

  11. I was bullied when I moved in the 5th grade. It was horrible, but my home life was worse. My bullies couldn’t understand why I didn’t respond to the bullying (there was no way in hell I was telling anyone — I would have suffered at home), which is why eventually one of them cracked. She was a good kid, new to school who got mixed up with bad friends. And I guess I was a bully magnet, because I never passed a year in that town unscathed.

    I think bully packs are a special blend of the weak and the power hungry contributing to a cycle that always needs someone to burn. I believe that parents do let the cycle happen, because if their kid is on top, they get a kick out of it. How many times have I heard “girls are evil’ with a shrug and a shake of the head. I don’t think it has to be this way.

    I think people should feel morally responsible for the actions they let happen around them. Abuse would be less likely to happen everywhere.

    good post.

  12. I agree that something should be done, but I’m not sure that current moral thought is able to deal with it. Many people believe this very en-vogue idea of “what’s good for you, is good for you, and what’s good for me is good for me”. This allows openings for quite a bit of deviation in what is considered ethically and morally correct. For you, and for many of your commenters, it is ethically wrong to bully. For some people, it’s not. Is there really any way to MAKE parents set limits, guide their kids, and correct them to your satisfaction? Also, at what point is the school legally culpable for this kind of abuse? Should we be appointing teachers to constantly monitor all student interaction?

  13. My mom did yank me out of public school in 1984 when the principal refused to do anything about the fact that a group of boys had attacked me on the playground and beat me up.
    My mom once told me that I cried and pleaded not to go to school on every single morning of elementary school.
    I had suicidal thoughts from age 10 to age 15.

    I like your comparison of reactions to bullying and reactions to acne and crooked teeth.

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  16. “Unfortunately, Phoebe Prince won’t get a chance to outgrow it.” So true. I have been following this tragedy and every time I think about her, I am angry all over again. The way the school board and the school district handled the whole thing was simply mind-boggling. They held the school dance two days after she committed suicide. The girls, the young people that I would love to give the benefit of the doubts to, left mean remarks on her Facebook page AFTER she killed herself. I don’t know what the parents taught them or not taught them that created little monsters such as this. There were two schools of thoughts in the Chinese philosophy in the beginning: one school believes that children were born good, the other, bad. When I read news such as this and of course “The Prom” I questioned whether Lord of the Flies might not be fictional after all.

  17. I was sitting in therapy the other day, trying to explain to my therapist why I was in the kitchen at a party I’d thrown, washing dishes because I felt too overwhelmed by all of the action and attention, when my subconscious blurted, “I guess part of me is still that fat kid in elementary school who was mocked and made fun of and still feels socially awkward.”

    I’m 36. I’m at the low end of my weight range. Some people even tell me they think I am charming and funny.

    Bullying never is, though.

    Bravo for this.