As a sexuality educator, I read or encounter something nearly every day that ranges from the sad to the devastating. The overarching goal of sexuality education is to help young people grow into healthy, happy adults, yet the issues young people face as they try to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence make reaching this goal extremely difficult.
Over the past few years, greater national attention has been focused on the issue of bullying, mostly because far too many of these young people who were bullied ended up dying by suicide. Considering that the root of bullying behavior is often found in gender norms and expectations, and that the targets of bullying are often young people who are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender, sexuality education can and must do a better job of addressing bullying if we are truly committed to making it stop.
A few nights ago, I watched an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a program in which a family in great need is selected to receive a newly built, customized home. The show introduces us to the family members and shares their stories as we watch the cast create the home and make several other dreams come true for them over the course of a week. This particular episode focused on the family of Carl Walker. Carl was an 11-year-old boy who had been bullied relentlessly by students at his school for such simple things as carrying around library books and enjoying reading. He was called a girl and told he was gay, along with all the terrible epithets that are used to insult people who are or are perceived to be gay. The night Carl’s mother was planning to take him with her to a PTA meeting to address the bullying, Carl went upstairs and hanged himself while she was preparing dinner. Remaining in the home had been understandably traumatizing to the family, but they did not have the option to move. Thanks to the show, the original house was razed, and a new one built that celebrates the life of Carl inside and out, replacing the terrible memory of what happened with peace and hope.
How Sirdeaner Walker, Carl’s mother, and her family have carried on in the wake of this loss is absolutely beyond me. Somehow she, like Judy and Dennis Shepard and other miraculously strong parents, chose to use the tragedy of Carl’s death as an opportunity to reach others. The Walkers are now working with GLSEN on a project called Stand Together. This new website, which was announced at the beginning of the show, asks visitors to take a stand against bullying. Visitors can download and print out a piece of paper with their number on it, take a photograph, and upload it to the site. While watching the show, I checked the site and over 20,000 people had taken the pledge. My son and I took a photograph as one entity; our number is 60,699. As of the writing of this blog, the number is 93,069.
I have to admit, as I was watching this extremely emotional episode I thought to myself: Will the impact of their work have a continuing effect? We are a fickle culture with a relatively short attention span. How can we work to ensure that the issue of bullying does not become a flash in the pan, today’s social issue topic du jour? I realized that standing together is a good, first, motivating step, but we must do much more.
1. Take the pledge, then talk about the pledge. Just as talking with children about sexuality is not simply about having “the talk” but a lifelong, ongoing conversation, we must constantly talk about bullying. Reminding friends and family members that we all pledged to do so is a great motivator for keeping focus on the steps we can take to end bullying.
2. Take action that resonates with young people. I have struggled with what I feel is an overly simplistic message to young people: “It gets better.” I love the reassuring motivation behind it, but from a child development standpoint, it’s nowhere near enough. Developmentally, adolescence is a narcissistic time, we have to remember that children who are bullied often feel like they are the only ones who have ever experienced it. We tell them others’ stories, but they are certain that their situation is different—that it is somehow their fault, that no one will believe them, that no one will care. They are concrete thinkers who live in the here and now, so thinking about the future can be challenging for some and impossible for others. And the scary reality is that for some people, it does not get better. We adults have the benefit of knowing things can improve, but young people who are bullied only know the pain they’re experiencing now. So while it’s fine to say, “it’s going to get better,” it is far more effective to accompany that with, “because here’s what we’re going to do to make it better,” and then actually take action. Put together a plan of action; ask a young person to write down her or his story and use it in making your case for the safety of the child, an others.
3. Label sexism and homophobia and explain why they are wrong. Children learn from their earliest ages that there are “boy” things and “girl” things; that boys should behave in certain ways and girls in other ways. The social consequences for not adhering to these expectations can range from minor to quite serious. The abhorrent truth is that there remains far more flexibility for a girl to be non-conforming in her behavior (the unspoken lesson in this is that by doing something “boy-like,” she is improving upon herself). Yet every single day, boys are criticized by other boys—and even adults—for acting like girls. And, of course, a boy who acts like a girl must be a gay boy. Parents, educators, religious leaders —every adult—must nip these gendered messages in the bud at the earliest ages. There are times for open discussion: “What do you think of what we just saw on that commercial?” And times to be direct: “I think it’s completely inappropriate that that guy just called his friend a pansy because he wanted to study for a test instead of going out with him.” Strong message, strong impact.
4. Teach young people to act when they see bullying happening. We also need to remember that during adolescence the most important group is a child’s peers. I have heard adults tell adolescents things like, “Why do you care so much what other people think about you?” This confuses and minimizes young people, and I will guarantee you that the answer an adolescent will always give is, “I don’t know.” That’s because young people honestly don’t know why their peers are so important, all they know is that without fitting in, there are no friends (regardless of whether these friends are the right types of friends). For this reason, we need to spend more time talking with young people about bystander behavior. It is relatively easy to teach a child not to bully others; it is another thing altogether to ask that child to be the whistleblower when someone (especially someone they perceive to be a friend) is bullying another child.
5. Use your “celebrity.” When I use the word “celebrity” here, I mean “influence.” If you are a true celebrity, the influence you have is clear. You know that when you speak about a social issue, young people will be riveted on you, and you then have an incredible opportunity to share or reinforce a message. If you are not a celebrity in the traditional sense, evaluate the social influence you do have. You may be well-known and respected in your profession; you may be the power parent in your community; you may be an active member of a religious or faith group. If you choose to make a pledge to stop bullying, then pledge to yourself that you will use your influence to focus others on this issue. Post about this issue on Facebook—not once, but regularly. Tweet, post on Tumblr, write a blog—not once, but once a day, once a week, once a month, or with whatever regularity you can. Visit and comment on others’ blogs, and they will do the same in return.
With so much dreck on television, it was phenomenal to watch a program that modeled how the media can and should raise awareness about a life or death social issue like bullying. And it feels good, when we are caught up in the emotional transfer of such a powerful show, to take a picture and sign a pledge. Now we need to do the hard work, and some of it may not feel very good. Be the parent who brings up this issue at every school board meeting. Be the adult who doesn’t have any children but who notices bullying going on as you pass a playground and says something. Be kinder to people in your own life because children are watching us for cues on how to behave—and because “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it. Young people need to hear again and again that they should never bully others, that they don’t deserve to be bullied, and that they should always tell an adult if they see bullying taking place so we can make it stop.
Get involved. Stay involved. Make this change happen.