Bullies, Bad Boys and Mean Girls: When Do Parents Get The Blame?

Like any parent, I’m appalled and saddened and horrified in equal measure when I hear stories like the one about Phoebe Prince, the Irish girl who, after moving with her family to South Hadley, Massachusetts, was so mercilessly teased–both in the halls of her high school and online–that she committed suicide.

Like any parent, I get my dander up when I suspect even a hint of a school not taking bullying seriously. But seriously? Most schools so, even if they are, sometimes, out of their depth (for lots of reasons: because so-called “mean girls” can be really mean; because boys and girls can be stealthy in their torment; because victims often don’t speak up; and because the whole arena of online bullying offers so many options for abuse that linger much longer than a hallway taunt has the power to do).

I suspect that many schools, if not most, deal competently with bullies, in this age of emphasis on educational psychology, as well as so much anti-bullying awareness. A local friend of mine, a trustee of her school board, told me a terrible story about a group of middle school kids who set up a Facebook page to torment a particular kid. To the school’s credit, once the story came to light, all the students involved got the heat. Not just the kids who created the page and spearheaded the abuse, but even any student who simply signed on as a “fan” of the page. And good for those administrators.

But here’s the elephant in the room: where are the parents?

Now, I don’t believe that parents of middle- and high-school kids can be as savvy about what their kids are doing as, say, I can. But I do believe that we all, as parents, should start as we mean to go on. I’m constantly walking a fine line between wanting to know what’s going on in my sons’ lives, the part that exists outside the boundaries of our home, and letting them be free to make friendships and deal with the sometime fallout of those friendships. And I plan to continue that, as best I can. I don’t plan to give up, and I think a lot of parents do.

I wrote about this last summer, when it began to occur to me that too many parents toss up their hands with a, “well, they’ll do what they’re going to do anyway, so why try?” attitude that drives me right around the bend. I know the counterargument: Sure, Denise, you smug parent-of-grade-schoolers. Just you wait until they are in middle school and it’s all slipping out of your grasp. But is it, really? Plenty does elude parents, I know. But what about being the voice they hear in their heads? What if you make it crystal clear, from babyhood onwards, what behavior is okay and what is absolutely not okay, consistently and constantly, firmly and clearly, so that by the time they are 13 and 14 and 15, and someone’s handing them a bottle of vodka at a party, or someone’s inviting them to join a Facebook group whose sole purpose is to bully another student, they hear you, or something like you (hopefully, it’s their own voice, but your words, your values), in their heads saying, “I just know there’s something wrong about this,” and having the wits and the cojones to stick to their moral and ethical guns.

I know it’s not perfect, and I realize that even good kids with tough, involved parents do the wrong things. But what’s the alternative? Giving in? Washing your hands of the whole thing? Leaving bullying education up to the school?

Or worse, blaming the schools or TV shows or the ubiquity and often poisonous anonymity of the internet for your own children’s misbehavior? I could go on, but Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen said it all so much better than I could have in today’s paper. He notes, accurately, that the Phoebe Prince story, like similar ones, arouses familiar emotions in a TV viewing, paper-reading audience because:

…it is about cruelty, which we do not understand; lack of empathy, which we find frightening; and conformity and coercion. But mostly it is about how little we know our kids, the little beasts who live among us and can sleep with a teddy bear by night and text-message a 15-year-old colleen to her death by day. Who are these kids?

Indeed: Who are they? But, he goes on to say, why aren’t fingers pointed at the parents?

The so-called South Hadley Nine, the bullies who have recently been indicted in the Prince case, says Cohen:

…clearly needed some parenting — some intercession or maybe, even probably, a parent to do what their child all the time wanted: force them to stop.

Yep. They needed parents. Parents who had not given up, on them, on the ongoing shaping of their moral sense, on their behavior.

It starts in the playground. And it does. Not. Stop.