The unkindness of strangers



When I was in seventh grade, a kid named Scott Matthews moved to our neighborhood from Seal Beach, California. To me, that made him a celebrity. From my little New England town, California seemed like a distant, exotic oasis — Rio de Janeiro with more blondes.  

Scott and I became best friends. I’d stop by his house every day on the way to school, and we’d walk there together. As we trudged through the slush and snow, he’d regale me with tales of sandy beaches, endless summers and bikini-clad California girls. 

Then, somewhere around the end of eighth grade, something changed. Suddenly, the arc of Scott’s ascent to coolness was too steep to take me along, so he tossed me overboard like ballast, using my ejection to accelerate his climb. Somehow, he got his new friends, most of whom I barely knew, to make me the specific target of their ridicule and scorn. It triggered the darkest months of my adolescence — filled with confusion, grief and the kind of self-loathing that only an ostracized teenager understands.

I tell you this, not because it’s remarkable, but because it’s so ordinary. This same story has played out for as long as children have gathered in schoolhouses, armed with verbal sticks and stones. We often idealize childhood as a carefree time, but the fact is, children can be cruel, and the target of their cruelty is usually each other.

Kids are spontaneous and unfiltered — it’s what we love about them. But it’s also what makes them act on every impulse and self-serving urge that crosses their minds. Because of that, we would never send them to school with, for instance, a loaded AK-47. But that caution doesn’t always extend to their emotional safety. Every day, we hand our children powerful weapons, which they carry in their pockets wherever they go. Sticks and stones may break their bones, but it’s their cellphones that could really maim them.

I know, I sound like a histrionic Luddite, but the risk is real. One study of 15,000 students found that 24 percent had been the target of cyberbullying. And this isn’t the kind of bullying we knew when we were kids. What was once a snide note passed around in algebra class is now a multimedia assault, complete with videos and captioned photos, and a comments section where anyone who wants to throw a stone of their own can join in. It’s broadcast to hundreds of Facebook “friends” with the push of a button, and it lives on in cyberspace forever.

Seeing a potential gold mine in adolescent cruelty, software companies have developed new and improved ways to mortify and shame. Snapchat has been a huge hit with teenagers. Its self-erasing missives allow surreptitious nastiness to disappear after 15 seconds, leaving no trace behind. Then there are the gossip apps like Secret, Whisper and Yik Yak that create anonymous rumor mills. Impulsive teens can post anything they want about anyone they choose, with no need to take personal responsibility. What could possibly go wrong?

So as parents, what should we do? Once bullying begins, it’s incredibly hard to stop, because it takes root away from the prying eyes of adults. Accusations turn into he said, she said, and sometimes lead to retribution. You can’t inoculate your child against this stuff.  Bullies often choose their targets with no rhyme or reason. Sometimes they choose their best friends. 

We need to prevent our kids, not just from being bullied, but from bullying others. I’m not talking about the kid who gets beat up at home, then goes to school to take it out on his classmates. I’m talking about the one who watches in silence while another child is harassed or shamed. I’m talking about the one who joins in and plays along, hoping they won’t be the next one with a target on their back. I’m talking about the vast majority of kids out there, like yours and mine.

If you ask any parent, they’ll tell you that they want their children to be kind. But most of us invest much more time and energy into making them successful. We obsess over their grades, drive them to piano lessons and sign them up for soccer. We praise them endlessly for their achievements, and can’t hide our disappointment when they fail. Though we want them to be compassionate and caring, our actions send a different message: that what we really, really want is for them to succeed.

So if your child has the smarts, the skills and the popularity to be top dog, why wouldn’t they seize that chance, no matter what it takes? And if they’re not on top, why wouldn’t they shove someone else down to keep from dropping to the bottom?

Kindness and empathy aren’t just character traits. They’re skills. And like soccer, or ballet, or playing the violin, learning them requires practice and motivation. But there aren’t any camps, or classes, or coaches for that. 

There’s just us.


Jeff Lee lives, works and writes in Seattle, which he prefers to Southern California in every conceivable way.