What Can We Tell Our Children About the Bully Who Won?

Some thoughts on silence and 'The Monster Under the Bed'

Posted Nov 10, 2016

With every school under mandate to, in some capacity, ‘police’ bullying, with teachers coming forward to state that Donald Trump would be ejected from their classrooms, if not their schools, how do we explain the election results to our children?

How do we (those who feel that a bully just convinced ‘everyone that matters’ he is not a lying, racist, misogynist—or worse yet, that being one is of no consequence) turn his success into a ‘teachable moment’?

And how to we continue to insist that bullying behavior is not the behavior we want our children to emulate?

We are straightforward.

We tell them, no matter how much we fight against prejudice, judgments, rejection, and a host of obnoxious behaviors, there will always be bullies, and always be those they can victimize and humiliate. It is what we do about the bullying—how we, as bystanders, become allies, and not only support victims, but help them resist shame, rejection, and disenfranchisement—that is key.   

We tell them, quite frankly, that if they silently stand by when someone—be it a classmate or  a president—belittles, humiliates, and disparages another, their silence sends the message that bigotry and bullying are OK. Silence is collusive.

Those who sit on the fence enable the arguments of those who foist their voices on us, and their prejudices begin to take root. 
When something is repeated, again and again and again, and no voices challenge that ‘something’ we begin to give it credence: 

“If men [sic] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” 
(perhaps no ‘sic’ is appropriate here…)

Our children, however, may not be so easily satisfied.  They may harken back to those teachable moments we employed over the past year and ask  "Why is he allowed to say those things and I’m not?” (or “Didn’t bullying win him the biggest popularity contest in the country?”)

And there simply are no answers to these questions. 

What there are, though, are responses. Responses that affirm our children’s sense that justice exists in the world—and that they can have a hand in insuring it.
Our children well-know that if someone at school mocks someone who is not 'skinny enough,' or who speaks with an accent, it’s not OK—even if Donald Trump did it. What they don’t well-know is how to respond when they see this behavior in the hallways or the cafeteria, and that we must answer ‘with empathy

We must ask, what would you like someone to do if that were you?

And, we can hold out some concrete, safe behaviors as examples for them (many of which rely on simple body language--see the link).

Yet resurrecting the Golden Rule gets increasingly difficult as our children grow older.
What do we say to our children when they report that spectators in the stands at a local HS football game begin chanting “Build that Wall”?

We remind them, too, that silence is tacit endorsement.
That our silence feeds the fear mongering, and gives credence to the proverbial Monster Under the Bed.

Pro-active responses turn on the light.  They show the fear to be overblown, and help the anxiety subside. (Go sit down next to someone in those bleachers who likely feels uncomfortable—if not intimidated--by the chants. Or simply catch their eye and smile.)

Our older children may demand more from us, and discussing the nature of competition may be a place to start.   

“Competition, simply put, is about the struggle for control over resources—be it land, food, sexual partners, money, or status.”
Falling midway between conflict and cooperation, competition unfolds within arenas that have rules and boundaries (think of the regulations around test-taking and exams, around the race for a championship in any sport, around the manufacture of products, etc.) Regulations ensure that the competition will be fair. (Is it only coincidence that the GOP is, notoriously, the party of ‘de-regulation?’)
Unfortunately, however, social competition is not regulated.  Only vague, informal, and largely unenforceable norms moderate social strivings.

This is precisely why it is so difficult to address bullying.  There are no laws against it;  no enforceable rules governing social climbing.Rather, there is ‘tolerance’ grounded in freedom of speech as well as freedom of religious expression (and ironically, freedom of religious expression has become the shield behind which much aggressive intolerance harbors).  

The right to bully, however, is changing. (Shawano, Wisconsin, has enacted anti-bullying ordinances, and may be the first place Trump finds he has legal trouble if he continues to bully from his new pulpit). 

So, while the election itself was carefully regulated, the rude social content that was used to gain popularity—the dismissiveness, taunting, and thin-skinned aggressiveness that so shocked many Americans—was not 'against any rules.' Comments were hurtful, sexist, and racist, preying upon ignorance, stereotypes, and fears. 

They violated laws of decency, but not laws that govern democracy.

And, it is important to note, the majority of Americans did not think that Donald Trump’s bullying was a good thing.

He lost the popular vote.  

So, when we talk to our children, we need to (sadly) remind them that bullies are not always caught;  that even if they are, their lies are sometimes believed.

This does not mean that we lay down and allow mockery and ridicule to find their mark; that we stand by while others are humiliated and rejected.

Rather, we continue to resist such behaviors, continue to believe that by our actions, any bullies’ power and reach can be limited. 

That even if a bully gains the presidency, our small kindnesses make big differences. 
That taken together, all of our daily considerations prevent American culture from becoming a crass, cruel caricature—they are, in fact what make America great. More than this, they ensure that this phase of our national history does not irrevocably put this country on the road that led Germany to Nazism.

We point to the example of the dignity and graciousness of the sitting president, who has touched so many lives and will continue to do so, even though he will no longer do it from the Oval Office.

And finally, while we struggle to make this election a teachable moment, we must allow for the possibility of redemption—for bullies, no less than for victims (as often, these roles overlap). Trump’s wife Melania is set to make ‘cyber-bullying’ her cause—and one can only wonder, will she start with her husband?  (Perhaps this initiative will be the first step in atoning for the cruelties that have come from his twitter account?)

We must allow that some good can come of this, and raise our voices to assist—to insist—that bullying not be tolerated.