A bullying habit hard to give up

Sunday, April 25, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:03 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

There have been several stories on television lately about bullies and bullying. And thinking back to my childhood, I can remember some incidents that remain painful even a half-century later.

I think we all have bully tendencies depending on where we are in the family lineup. It’s kind of a domino effect. The oldest picks on the next in line and so on. My older brother targeted me early on and I, of course, set my sights on my younger sister. As toddlers, I would take away a toy if she looked like she was having too much fun. And in school, I didn’t want her to play with my friends. But I could make her cry every time I told her her lips were too thin.

Taunting is the amateur form of bullying. And there are rules:

1. The one being ridiculed is usually younger but definitely weaker. A good taunter doesn’t mess with someone who lands a punch.

2. The taunter picks an attribute to ridicule he or she doesn’t share. Example: A chubby child taunter would never call his sister “fatso” because he knows all she has to do is hand him a mirror.

3. An experienced taunter never jeers at his victim when an adult is within earshot.

4. Taunters quit when there is no response.

Graduating from taunter to bully is a big step. This is where the parents have to step in. When my kids were young I heard them ridicule each other on more than one occasion. But when I saw two picking on one I decided the “fun” was over. I can remember two of my boys taking turns telling a third brother he was too slow to play baseball with them. I sat the trio down and pointed out that although brother A could run faster, he had trouble hitting the ball — therefore he had little opportunity to show his talent. I told ridiculer B that indeed he could hit and run well, but he wasn’t very good at catching the ball so many times the “other” team won by scoring more runs on his errors. I thought I had shown all three that we all have deficits we can work on.

When I attended high school I never witnessed the kind of bullying the talk-show stories depict today. The bullying back then was much more subtle, but maybe just as damaging. When a non-family member makes fun of you, the hurt goes deeper and stays longer. As a teenager I was called heffalump, thunder thighs, fat butt — do you see a pattern? And at that age, a “group” made the comments as I walked by. I don’t know of a person who hasn’t had to endure some form of ridicule. It’s part of the baggage we take into adulthood.

I’m not acquainted with any adult bullies. Most have learned to deal with their own inadequacies or they are CEOs of major companies. But recently I saw a note written to the editor of the Missourian and I think I might have the makings of my own personal bully. The note began by saying the writer’s husband was a doctor. Now I don’t know why that is pertinent. My husband’s accomplishments are no reflection on who I am. Maybe the writer thought being a doctor’s wife gave her more credibility than if she was the wife of, say, an electrician. She went on to state the worst thing about the Sunday newspaper was my column. OK, I thought, being a columnist puts me out there for others to express their opinions. Some people don’t think I’m funny and most of those comments have come from my children. Others don’t want to hear about my grandchildren or disastrous vacations. The First Amendment is alive and well, and I welcome any constructive criticism. The operative word here is “constructive.”

But imagine my surprise when the writer said that my columns were lewd. Huh? Maybe I don’t know the definition of lewd. I ran to my trusty Webster and found: “Showing, or intending to excite, lust or sexual desire, esp. in an offensive way.” I haven’t lusted, let alone talked about lust, for years!

Then I read on. The second definition said: “Unlearned, ignorant.” Before this entry was the abbreviation “Obs.” At the front of the dictionary I found that “Obs.” stands for obsolete. Now I understand that all she needs is a newer dictionary. What she really meant to say is I’m stupid!

She ended her note by saying there were “many” others in Columbia who felt the same way. When I teach reporters to write, I tell them they should avoid the words ”many” and “few” because they are too vague. Those words leave the reader wondering how many or how few.

I’d like to correspond with this person, but for some reason she forgot to sign the note.

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