How to Beat a Bully: Start by Changing Their Parents

How to Beat a Bully: Start by Changing Their Parents

Two stories in the news just now offer encouragement on the bullying front. In today's New York Times is an account of a new policy adopted by a big suburban school district north of Minneapolis.

Christian conservatives there had been fighting against an effort to protect gay students from beatings and other forms of torture favored by the Christians. But a lawsuit and federal civil rights investigation pushed the district to adopt new policies requiring the district to teach and affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students.

The other story making the rounds has been about the efforts of director Lee Hirsch to overcome a censorious rating inflicted by the Motion Picture Association of America on his new documentary on the subject, called simply, Bully.

That one caught my eye for a couple reasons. First, it sounds like a must-see on the subject. Second, I wrote a book by the same name, Bully, published in 1997 by William Morrow, and made into a movie in 2001 by avant artist/photographer/director Larry Clark.

My book was no treatise on bullying. It was strictly a true-crimer. It did involve a bully, but in that case, a true story, the teen-age bully was savagely murdered by his teen-age victims, all of whom subsequently did richly deserved sentences in the pen.

In fact, I never really understood how twisted the bullying issue was in that story until my book had been out for some years. I didn't meet Clark until after the film came out, because of certain complications involving my compensation for movie rights, none of which had anything to do with Clark.

He was in Dallas doing publicity for the movie. We had coffee at Café Brazil. Clark, who is three years my senior, was accompanied by an unspeakably gorgeous, disturbingly youthful actress of non-European descent (Philippines?) whom he described as his girlfriend. She was sullen and mute during most of our chat -- so much so that I became concerned she might be plotting an escape. I was on the verge of offering to call 911 for her, when she finally blurted out what was on her mind.

"You guys," she said, "you're just two old white guys who don't know shit."

A scene from Lee Hirsch's documentary Bully.
A scene from Lee Hirsch's documentary Bully.

Clark and I exchanged glances and nodded immediately, each agreeing right away that the other was an old white guy who didn't know shit. She went on to make her case.

Clark grew up in mid-century Tulsa. I grew up outside Detroit. Neither one of us, she said, understood the culture clash between immigrant and native-born kids today. The plot point I completely missed in my book, she said, and Clark completely missed in his movie, was that the kid they killed was the child of immigrants and his victim/slayers were not.

But he was the bully, I blurted. She shook her head impatiently.

"That's the point, Sherlock," she said.

I decided right then and there she was older than she looked and could go call 911 by herself if she wanted.

She said she was an immigrant kid. Most of her friends were immigrant kids. They were all are taught by their parents to despise American-born kids.

"Why?" Clark and I asked in unison.

Because, she said, their nightmare is that their own kid will turn into one of them. To immigrant parents, American kids are lazy, soft, over-indulged, without goals or the ability to delay gratification for even an instant in order to achieve goals.

Man, light bulbs started going off in my head. She was right about one thing. The bully/victim in my book was the son of Iranian immigrants, and he was the only kid in his circle in South Florida headed anywhere but downtown to buy more dope. His father was pushing him to finish school and go into business at the same time. Most of the American-born kids in his circle from high school were early-onset losers.

He picked on them. They killed him.

So here's my deal today. I look at stuff like that Minneapolis story in particular, where the Christian parents fought unsuccessfully against rules to protect gay kids from beatings. I think of my own sort of haphazard experience in the area. And a unifying theme emerges.

Kids become bullies as expressions of their parents' values. They think it's OK -- actually, they think it's a good thing -- to knock a gay kid's teeth down his throat down by the gym because their parents have signaled to them it's a good thing. Blood on their cuffs when they come home at night means they won't turn gay themselves. They must kill the thing their parents fear. Like turning American. Or black. Or white. Whatever.

The Minnesota settlement takes a smart approach to all of that by doing two things. It requires the school district to put down a bright line saying that all children share common qualities of dignity and human worth. But it also requires the district to have personnel in place whose mission is to get out into the halls and look for it.

I just hope when they're out there looking, the anti-bully police will be smarter about it than me and Larry Clark. If adults look only for the instances predicted by their own life experiences, they may miss the important new ones.

Ultimately there's only one answer -- a universal belief in universal human dignity. But who can wait for that to happen? In the meantime, lawsuits and criminal prosecutions are good intermediate measures.

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