By Trevor Romain, author of Bullying Is a Pain in the Brain
“My kid is not a bully,” said an irate mother. She was talking with a middle school principal who had called to discuss her daughter’s involvement in a bullying incident. “As a matter of fact, my daughter is one of the most popular kids in school. What reason would she have to bully anybody?”
Much to the mother’s dismay, she found out the startling and disturbing truth. Her daughter was indeed bullying other kids to secure, and perhaps even elevate, her position on the social ladder.
It is becoming apparent that popularity and social prestige are exactly why some kids bully. At a school I recently visited, a group of kids told me that they felt bullying was worth the risk of being punished if it increased their popularity. “Nothing really happens to us,” one middle school girl said, “because the teachers just tell us to be nice. We never do it in front of the teachers, so they don’t even know most of the time.”
While chatting with the kids, I realized that there seems to be a lack of empathy for targets of bullying, almost an “it is what it is” attitude. One boy told me that this style of social jockeying goes on every day. “It’s not always smacking people down physically,” he said, “but, you know, like mostly putting them in their place.”
The idea that kids use bullying to improve social status has been supported by several studies. It appears that in their struggle to get to the top, some kids will use almost any social, emotional, or physical bullying to elevate their position.
This makes reporting and upstanding so extremely important. Many of the kids I meet during school visits tell me that they don’t report bullying because they fear being bullied themselves or being called a tattletale—two surefire ways to lose footing on the social ladder. Also, kids say that sometimes teachers betray their confidence when they have spoken up to support a victim and call out the incident in front of the whole class.
One of the suggestions I give to kids who are being bullied or who witness bullying is to speak to the teacher or counselor in private and ask that the reporting be kept confidential. They can also write a private note to a teacher explaining what happened and that the reporter remain anonymous. If targets and bystanders don’t have to fear repercussions from other kids, they will be more likely to come forward.
Society has been trying to figure out how to stop bullying for years. In light of what we’re learning about hierarchical bullying, perhaps the way to stem the tide is to create a peer-to-peer culture where kids learn to take care of one another and not always rely on an adult to fix a situation. Solutions would come from all segments of the social landscape, not just from those at the top. In this culture, inclusion, tolerance, acceptance, resilience, and reporting of bullying would become part of the way we live. Kindness, understanding, bystander support, empathy, the Golden Rule, courage, compassion—these would become a bigger part of our children’s daily lives.
As adults, it’s our job to put kids in the best position to succeed. If we’re deliberate about creating a culture where kids are equal and have ways to safely report bullying, we can do just that.
Trevor Romain is an award-winning author, illustrator, and motivational speaker. His books have sold more than a million copies worldwide and have been published in 18 different languages. For more than 20 years, Trevor has traveled around the world, delivering support and stand-up comedy to thousands of children. He has been the keynote speaker at numerous education and mental health conferences and has appeared regularly on national and international media outlets. Trevor is the former president of the American Childhood Cancer Organization and is well known for his work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the United Nations, UNICEF, USO, and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, which he co-founded. Trevor lives in Austin, Texas.
Trevor’s Free Spirit books include:
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