How We Behave Matters

Bullying is aggressive behavior with intent to hurt, threaten, frighten a person, group, or even a country. Playing out on the world stage right now are lessons in what happens when bullying escalates to warfare and war mongering. We are seeing the consequences of avoidant and disengaged foreign policies; countries that have colluded and deluded each other that they (we) could go on about our national interests and not deal with Russia… or North Korea… or any other autocrat bent on terrorizing the international scene.

Bullying succeeds until stopped. And if not stopped until it is very big and dangerous and armed to the teeth you get what’s happening right now with Putin using his power to invade Ukraine and bully it into submission. You get what’s happening in the United States, with the entitlement of white supremacy attempting to put voting rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ+ rights, BIPOC rights, and public education back into a very prescribed reality. Bullying does not voluntarily go away.

When I was in fourth grade, I had to pass my arithmetic papers to Bobby Cox, the boy in the next desk, for “grading.” I guess the teacher thought this system removed the temptation to “correct” our answers as we went through the problems. But the problem for me was that Bobby liked to change my answers to be wrong. He would turn a 3 into an 8 or a 1 into a 4, and then he’d make fun of me, calling out that I was stupid, and writing a big red F on the page. I earnestly showed the teacher how the numbers had been rewritten and she believed me enough to give me a B, but she didn’t discipline Bobby. She passed this volatile boy into fifth grade where he took to drawing buttocks on the top of my papers and coloring globs of brown poop down my homework so I had to recopy assignments.

My mother counseled compassion. “Maybe nobody loves him,” she said. “Maybe his father is mean to him. A child mimics the behavior he sees. He wants you to be mad at him, so be nice instead. Here, make him a valentine. You don’t have to sign it, but there will be at least one in his shoebox.” Mom was probably right about the lacks in his home—but no one in authority intervened on Bobby’s behalf. He drew his signature buttocks and poop on the only valentine in his box and taped it to the blackboard, laughing and lonely. In junior high he picked fights in the back of the school bus, put spitballs and chewing gum in kids’ hair. In high school he was repeatedly suspended for aggressive behavior. Instead of graduating, he was in juvenile hall for stabbing another boy in a street fight. I have no idea what happened to him.

Such a child is a tragic tale. Bobby’s access to his own moral compass had been destroyed and while he sat in the middle row, he was separated from the schoolroom society around him, unable to adhere to common codes of behavior. In the 1986 classic, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum asserted that most human beings have (by age five) an understanding of what constitutes moral/civil behavior and he suggested adults remember these basics. His list had such universal appeal the book sold 17-million copies and was translated in twenty-seven languages. It included: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.  Take a nap . Watch for traffic. Hold hands and stick together. Be aware of wonder.

It is heartbreaking and havoc-creating when the umbilical cord to our moral/civil code is severed. As such children grow, bullying often becomes their primary way of relating in the world. Unconfronted bullying escalates in thoughts, words, deeds. And right now, bullying is a global pandemic. Here in the US, fringe political groups carry assault rifles into school board meetings, people have weaponized the flag, the pledge of allegiance, social media, and civic spaces. Where is the Commons, the town square, where we might meet and remember the things we learned in kindergarten?

I believe it is up to us to become the “Commons,” to speak and behave with decency and to intercept the rise in bullying in whatever ways we find ourselves capable. In our years teaching circle practice, people often asked for help to confront bullying.

Here is what we learned:

  1. Self-care is primary. We cannot succumb to victimization. (Think of all those Ukrainians rising up to meet their bully!) We can talk with friends, get reality checks, run through scenarios, process our emotions so that we remain calm in the work of the moment. If we are the target, acknowledge how draining this is. Rest in whatever ways are most nourishing.
  2. Set clear parameters. We can define what behavior/language is most important to us to intercept and why. Knowing our own motivation helps keep us out of ego conflict and supports neutral language. Who or what are we defending? We can be compassionate and fierce; confront behavior while honoring the humanity of a person.
  3. Refuse to meet escalation with escalation. We can walk away, hang up, delete social media attacks. As appropriate, we can confront behavior in witness with others. If someone else is being bullied, or confronting bullying, we can be an ally, an active bystander, a recorder of the moment. (Think of the teenager who videoed George Floyd’s murder and changed the world.)
  4. Define meaningful outcome and hold to it. Bullies may or may not transform into citizens, colleagues, or friends, but their behavior can be corralled, and their influence diminished when we insist that rules of decency, civility, and truthfulness prevail. Entrenched behavior takes strategy, effort, and time to untrench. People need to be creative, supportive, active, persistent and collaborative.

Bullying is misuse of power, and in the world of now, we best do everything we can to confront bullying while it is still manageable in our lives. The list of crises we face is longer than Fulghum’s list of how we face them. Standing up to bullying is not comfortable work, but it keeps the Commons alive. It provides social spaces where children can learn how to be good humans and we can hold hands in uncertainty. In the 21st century, this is a skill we best cultivate and support each other to practice.

18 replies
  1. Ken Corens
    Ken Corens says:

    Good morning Christina. Thanks for your thoughts. I’ve always somehow known that bullies needed to be confronted. I had more courage as a schoolboy. I hope to find it again.
    I was thinking about you and your work yesterday when I came across a song by Peter Mayer…Everybody In (to the circle, circle). You might enjoy it.
    Ken

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you, Ken. I always felt your integrity and courage when we were growing up together. You must have been a great school teacher… and now we find our elder courage together. So glad we are still in touch.

      Reply
  2. Rebecca Puterbaugh
    Rebecca Puterbaugh says:

    Well said! As someone with a child in school now, in a school that puts great value on coaching kids on and through kindness before and after bad relational choices, I feel I can attest to the importance of confronting bullying as it happens. Bullying confronted leads to healing on all fronts, if the confrontation is done well! Kids are still learning kindness, and they’re learning it from us. Media unfortunately plays a big role in this as well, and I think bullying prevention includes a consideration of the media kids are consuming… and having conversations with them about that media. My daughter and I had a rather enlightening conversation recently about a movie we were watching, where she wanted to know whether the fight the protagonist was choosing to get into was “right.” A vital question, and one I’m glad she asked!

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Raising children to have emotional and moral intelligence is a big job. I know you and Luna are doing great together. I think of you often and hope you are well. love, C

      Reply
  3. Susan Embry
    Susan Embry says:

    Excellent voice of reason. Reminds me of the women in Ukraine who said to the US reporter she felt sorry for Putin’s mother, who must be turning over in her gave. And it reminds me of a bully I had in 4th grade. Wish I could repost on Facebook.

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Thank you Susan. i always appreciate your comments. You can repost to FB–just click the symbol at the top. If you have trouble, let me know.

      Reply
  4. Karyl Howard
    Karyl Howard says:

    Christina! As usual (and expected, respected and appreciated), your words are wonderful and they come at the very right time! Thank you so much for what you bring to our world!

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      This touches me deeply, Karyl, thank you. It took me 8 hours to write and rewrite… wanting to craft something that would communicate broadly and be applicable to people in many situations.

      Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      And as you know from your work/our mutual work–story is a huge part of how we heal bullying, provide another model in the world, and expand empathy. Keep on with The Story You Need to Tell!

      Reply
  5. Catherine Wilson
    Catherine Wilson says:

    Thank you for this story and firmly loving message, Christina. Compassion is sometimes fierce! One of the video clips I saw after Desmond Tutu’s death was of him wading in to stop a fight – firm, yang energy used to make a loving boundary for safety and non-violence. Thank you for your voice!

    Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      And you, Catherine, would burst into song–yin energy to make a loving boundary. We each use the skills we have.

      Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      I keep thinking about the King of Denmark syndrome where when the Jews were made to wear the Star of David, he also wore it and galvanized those not in direct threat to stand with those who were. I hope that thinking about these things beforehand will prepare us to stand alongside as things happen around us. Always ready to stand with you, Pam.

      Reply
    • Christina Baldwin
      Christina Baldwin says:

      Dear blue dot in a red state… the work is good there and you are such an ambassador for the green, good, and gorgeous in life.

      Reply

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