I’m not proud of what I did, but I’m trying to learn from my mistakes to make things better for my children.
I’m about to reveal a big ol’ skeleton in my closet: I didn’t just go through an awkward braces phase as a kid — I went through a bully stage, too. My version of bullying blew right past “kids being kids” and well into being a total @#!hole to poor, unsuspecting souls for no good reason.
The people I picked on were usually the unfortunate ones closest to me — family or good friends. They’re still in my life today, whether by obligation or some small miracle. Sometimes they look back on it and laugh with disbelief, because I later became (and still am to this day) an extreme people pleaser and non-confrontational queen.
But I ain’t laughin’. I cringe. I’m still completely mortified, to be honest.
I think about the time I called a childhood friend out in front of a group for wearing the same outfit day after day. I remember pointing out someone’s birthmark to make her self-conscious about it. I remember telling scary stories to younger neighbors to terrify them into not sleeping.
The worst was when I spread rumors about a friend getting her period to everyone at school. I was one of the only ones who saw it happen, and it didn’t need to go any further than that.
What made me even more of a jerk was that I was super stealthy about my occasional nastiness, so I rarely got caught. When my mom gets wind of these stories, she is every bit as mortified as I am now because she never realized it was going on. As a mom myself, that part really startles me.
So why’d I do it? Why’d I stop? And how do I keep my own kids from bullying — or being bullied — as they grow up? These are questions I reflect on often, and I’m here to answer them from a reformed bully’s perspective.
Why, then? Insecurity, for one. Calling a friend out for wearing the same thing day after day… okay, dude. This coming from the girl who wore her American Eagle fleece until the elbows wore out and went through a heavy no-shower phase to preserve the “curls” that were really crispy strands of gel-trapped hair just begging for a washing. I was no prize.
But beyond insecurity, it was one part testing the turbulent preteen waters and one part believing this was how girls my age treated each other. In that, I felt justified because there were people out there doing a lot worse.
A girl had become our friend group’s leader because others were scared of her. Fear = power. Wasn’t that how this whole thing worked? And hadn’t the older neighborhood girls written “LOSER” in sidewalk chalk about me outside of my house? I wasn’t taking it that far. But here we are, and 25 years later, I’m still sorry for the dumb things I did.
That takes me to when and why I stopped: a combination of relative maturity and experience. Surprising no one, I was devastated when the older girls who I thought were my friends shunned me. And people stopped wanting to hang out with our fearless friend group leader over time — including me.
I saw for myself that no, that wasn’t how “just how girls my age treated one another.” Not if they intended on keeping them as friends, anyway. Being a preteen was rough enough… we girls had to have each other’s backs.
That leaves us with the last question: How do I keep my own kids from bullying — or being bullied — as they grow up?
Ah, now this part is tough. I try to lead with honesty. My youngest isn’t there yet, but my oldest is old enough to understand. More than that, he already has a frame of reference, thanks to a ganging up scenario in summer camp. No matter when or why it happens, it happens, and it’s my job to prepare him for it. That’s why we keep an open family dialogue.
I tell him that I wasn’t always nice (*cough cough* understatement of the year) and that he’ll encounter kids who sometimes hurt others to make themselves feel good. I tell them it’s easy to buy into certain behaviors if you think it makes you cooler or makes certain crowds like you more.
But all we have is how we treat one another, and you own your own actions always. Only you can set the tone for what you will and won’t do. For what you will and won’t accept.
I don’t need to tell you that the anti-bullying sentiment is alive and well — and rightfully so. There are even extreme incidents in the news of people convincing others that they’re worthless and don’t deserve to live. I can’t imagine inflicting or living with that horror, from anyone’s side.
And let’s be real. We can’t let it get to that level to get us talking about and rallying against it. Because bullying doesn’t just happen on the playground or the halls of some high school somewhere. It happens in the workplace. Among friend groups. In families. Online. Everywhere. And regardless of friend group, age, gender, race, religion, or virtually any other variable, we are in this thing together.
We are people and parents who are doing our best, and we don’t want our kids on either side of a bullying scenario. The more awareness we bring — and the less we’re collectively willing to take — the better off we’ll be.
Kate Brierley is a senior writer, freelancer, and resident boy mom of Henry and Ollie. A Rhode Island Press Association Editorial Award winner, she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s in library and information studies from the University of Rhode Island. She is a lover of rescue pets, family beach days, and handwritten notes.