“It’s OK to be different,” the mother told her seven-year-old adopted daughter. “But it’s not OK to be too different,” responded Katie through her tears. She was a victim of bullying at school when some boys teased her about her Star Wars water bottle and backpack, saying only boys like Star Wars.
Most of us have stories of bullying. In my grade school, Deborah was the target of relentless taunting by the boys, who accused her of having cooties, a fictitious invention. I spent most of my eighth-grade year in evasive maneuvers, because a boy repeatedly announced that he wanted to change the shape of my face.
Recent surveys indicate that more than 75 percent of students have been bullied in some way. Nearly one in four elementary students admitted they were bullied one to three times in the last month. Fear of being bullied causes as much as 15 percent of all school absenteeism.
Bullying received the national spotlight in recent years from tragic stories, like 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover who hanged himself after months of torment by classmates. In January of this year, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince also took her own life when she felt helpless to escape the severe harassment of fellow students, which had escalated over a three-month period. A Massachusetts District Attorney charged nine students in the incident.
Cyberspace has upped the ante. Gossip and insults spread like a prairie fire on a windy day, thanks to Facebook and Twitter. YouTube was recently used to embarrass a Rutgers student who was filmed in an immoral act. The student later killed himself. And who will forget the brutal beating of a teen girl by six of her peers who lured her to a home for the assault? One of the teens recorded the incident on a cell phone camera with the intention of posting it on YouTube and MySpace.
Historically psychologists blamed bullying on low self-esteem. Further research reveals the opposite, that most bullies have a sense of entitlement and superiority. As many as 40 percent of those who bully have been bullied at home or at school. Permissiveness also breeds bullies. If parents neglect consistent forms of discipline, the child learns to exploit his freedom, which can mutate into a aggressive expressions of power.
Giving good parental training requires a proper view of human nature. Sin has distorted the sense of self in all of us. We all vacillate between a sense of superiority or inferiority, depending upon whom we are comparing ourselves with at the moment.
I encountered an ugly superiority when I traveled to Russia to help train pastors. My sense of elevated confidence in a foreign setting alerted me to an inflated self-esteem. I realized I considered myself better than my fellow believers because I had more education, more advantages, greater opportunities and a better lifestyle. I was the ugly American.
One evening my host related the story if his imprisonment for distributing Bibles during the oppressive period of communism. His wife and children had to get by without him for several years. This family’s faith humbled me. In spite of all my American privileges, these servants of Christ knew him to depths I had not explored. My sense of self shrunk from that encounter.
On the other hand, I am not a stranger to a sense of inferiority. I am frequently intimidated by people who are smarter than me, more gifted or taller than me. Dazzled by their assets, I minimize my own gifts and strengths. I consider myself less than what I am, less than what God thinks about me. In one way, I bully myself with this unbalanced thinking.
Romans 12:3 urges us to form an accurate self-assessment, “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” Sober judgment does not allow us to denigrate the self anymore than it permits us to exalt the self.
In fact, this is true humility, a proper sense of the self so that we are free from insecure self-centeredness. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Don’t imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he won’t be a sort of greasy smarmy person, who’s always telling you that, of course, he’s nobody. Probably all you’ll think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. … He won’t be thinking about himself at all.” (Mere Christianity)
When you are correctly oriented to God, you discover a freedom to relate to others without thought of yourself. This enables you to serve in the same way Jesus served. “Have this same mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” (Philippians 2:5-7)
Bullying can be reduced by a proper self-orientation, which means a right God-orientation. Knowing God results in knowing one’s self and truly knowing one’s self cannot occur without knowing God. If you want to correct the bully tendency in your own child or repair the damage done to your child by a bully, help them discover God’s design.