A Painful Truth About Parents and Bullying

Everyday Shakespeare http://www.everydayshakespeare.com

 

Here in Massachusetts we’re getting continuous media coverage of the fallout from Phoebe Prince’s suicidal response to her schoolmates’ chronic bullying. We’ve got details on the alleged perpetrators, statements by their lawyers, columnists weighing in on which adults to blame, and updates on the impending Massachusetts Anti-Bullying Legislation. The whole story is sickening, and not in a must-look-at-car-crash kind of way.  I want to stick my fingers in my ears and go “La, La, La, I don’t hear anything.” This is not because I don’t care.

 

Discussions of bullying are rising like flood water at my kids’ school. Some people take the “kids these days are just more evil” approach to bullying-related tragedies. I understand why this idea is comforting. If social media has turned kids into a new kind of monster, then us parents can play the easy role of fumbling by-standers, mouths all a-gape.

 

Yes, cyber-threats are new, but girl-on-girl soft (and hard) bullying goes back a long way. There’s always been a lot of scholarly interest in those 16th-century pamphlets about snarky “gossips,” the women who encourage wives to talk trash about their husbands and spend too much of their money. But evident in the earliest literature is also the terrible consequences of women cutting down other women.

 

I started to think about Tamora and Lavinia in Shakespeare’s early tragedy Titus Andronicus. In retaliation for crimes committed by Lavinia’s father, Tamora terrorizes the innocent teenager and instructs her sons to rape her (which they do, happily).

 

Tamora’s bullying is good news when you’re teaching a class on Shakespeare (who doesn’t love a titillating plot?). But it’s seriously bad news if you’re a parent. It creates some kind of cosmic thread between the incidents you hear about from your kids (these girls ganged up on that girl, called her a [blank], etc., etc.) and the darkest expressions of girl on girl bullying.

 

I’m hoping that my kids will have nothing to do with this bullying stuff. The problem is, when your own kids are not involved in bullying, you think about the bullies and the bullied in the same way you think about the families who get lice: you’re sympathetic, but you don’t want to sleep in their bed. One of the hardest things to swallow about bullying is how much it exposes the parental “turn the other way” survival mechanism. Most people would choose to keep these plots fictional as long as possible.

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