• What makes a bully?

    by Gary Huerta

    By now you’ve probably heard of — and talked about — Karen Klein, the New York bus monitor who was bullied by a couple of students last week. With so many recent incidents around the country and in our own community involving bullying, it occupied many of my thoughts this week.

    Until this latest incident, it was mostly my opinion that bullies were cowards – nothing more, nothing less. While that may sometimes be true, after much thought, I have come to believe that bullies may also be acting out a behavior they learned elsewhere – either at home or in a place where an imbalance of power, or state of bullying, is forced upon them by an authority figure – like a parent, guardian or other group where their identity is defined.

    There’s an old saying: People who hurt people, are hurt people. Think about it. When is the last time you heard of a happy person causing someone else pain? I never have. I think bullies are hurting inside and one way to get relief from their pain or find normalcy in that dysfunctional state of mind is by projecting that hurt onto others.

    So what do we do to remedy this problem, which seems to be growing steadily in schools and even more in cyberspace, where it can become a relentless, 24 hour a day assault on a victim?

    According to a Los Angeles Times column, Juvenile Judge Scott Johansen in Utah decided the appropriate punishment was to levy his own brand of, “eye for an eye” justice by offering to reduce a 13-year-old girl’s sentence — if her mother agreed to chop off the girl’s ponytail.

    The column further revealed that the girl ended up in Johansen’s court twice for bullying-type behavior – once for cutting off several locks of a toddler’s hair and another for using the telephone to harass another victim over the course of eight months.

    Ultimately, the convicted girl’s mother did chop off the ponytail in court but now says the judge intimidated her into agreeing to the unusual punishment.

    While people may like the instant gratification that goes with this kind of “shame” punishment, I personally think it’s a mistake that serves no one in the long term.

    To address bullying as an epidemic – and I believe we have one on our hands – perhaps we ought to start digging a little deeper into the bully’s life rather than merely handing out a consequence for an action. I believe we’d see more effective results if we carefully examined why the bully feels the need to hurt someone else. Where are they learning this behavior? Are they being bullied by relatives? Are the parents creating an environment where this kind of treatment towards others is acceptable? Or are they learning from the religions they follow that it’s OK to show no tolerance or respect of people whose beliefs and lifestyles are different?

    Most people are familiar with the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. They regularly protest funerals of American military personnel killed, whom they suspect of being gay. Their “God hates fags” rhetoric would seem to be a classic case of group bullying mentality.

    As I think about the proliferation of intolerance these days, I can’t help but wonder what role groups who promote their separatist, hate-filled agendas play in the increased intensity of bullying?

    In Glendale, California, we are burdened with Reverend Bryan Griem of the Montrose Community Church — yet another example of someone who leads his congregation by telling them atheists are not deserving of respect, homosexuality is a sin worthy of eternal damnation and anyone who does not follow their religious beliefs are lower forms of life. This is a person who has gone on record to say things like, “Homosexuality is the sin flavor of our time,” and “The Christian floats gently into the hands of the creator and the angry atheists and indifferent agnostics keep falling indefinitely.” Every day this kind of disrespect for others is being repeated in every community across the country.

    So what do we expect will happen when children are led into these kinds of environments where they are being taught by figures of authority that they don’t have to tolerate anyone who is different? Do we actually think we’re going to get a generation of kids who exercise compassion and understanding? Or is it more logical to expect that our kids are going to exhibit behavior more like common thugs?

    Let’s be clear…I’m not suggesting the only solution is to rationalize the behavior of a bully. There needs to be some consequence. But unless we look beyond mere short-term retribution and see how we can fix the person and their perspective, we may not see any change.

    As my own daughter prepares for junior high, I am concerned that she will be surrounded by children whose lives are immersed in behavior where bullying is increasingly commonplace. I cannot think I am alone in this opinion.

    I have already heard things from her that indicate she’s been the target of some intimidation and bullying. Her revelations make me think about what the home life of a 10 year old must be like if they are already coming to school with a desire to inflict pain on others?

    Based on what I’ve seen and the feelings I’ve expressed, if my daughter were the victim of a bullying attack at her new school, I would not be immediately inclined to seek punishment for the bullies. Instead, I’d demand the school set up a mandatory meeting with the parents of the accused bullies. The first thing I’d want to know is what would make their child think it’s OK to bully another human? What factors in their lives might make them react towards others in such a negative way? I’d ask tough questions in the hopes of letting the parents know there are others in their community who expect them to step up and be accountable for the people they are shaping.

    Then I’d start looking for solutions. What types of input could their children receive that might make them more compassionate and respectful of other’s feelings and opinions? Are their shifts that will enhance tolerance? In other words, do they as role models have the ability to help their children succeed?

    If their answer is yes, we probably have a good chance of solving the bullying problem and developing a more compassionate person. If the parents merely want to deflect accountability and call it an isolated event, as is so often the case these days, we have a real issue, because the child is being raised in a way that will continue to make them feel like they’ve done nothing wrong. Ultimately, that is a problem for those of us who are teaching our children to be tolerant and respectful of others.

    As for my own children and those who want to build a world where acceptance is the standard, I believe there are better things to teach than striking back or the, “eye for an eye” doctrine. The most important thing we can teach kids is self-esteem. This is the one weapon that defeats the bully. If one refuses to believe the rhetoric of hate and intolerance directed at them and instead trusts what they know as an inner truth about themselves, they will remain intact.

    I feel sorry for the bullies, especially those like the aforementioned Reverend Bryan Griem. Those types of people have a whole lot of unresolved hurt and inner turmoil to work out. If there were at peace within, they wouldn’t be trying to start wars with everyone around them. Bullies have developed a habit of validating their own self-worth based primarily on the degradation of others. It’s a self-defense mechanism designed to mask their own insecurities. Overcoming those feelings is their battle.

    If we can show our children just what is truly inside a bully, they might actually find themselves feeling sorry for that person rather than feeling hurt by them.

    And as another old saying goes, “They are more worthy of pity than scorn.”



    • I totally agree- which is why I spent year working with teens on probation and in foster care. If I could get them to find value in themselves, they would in turn find value in others.

      Bullying is just self hatred projected onto others. Plain and simple.

      Any you’re right, happy people don’t hurt others.

      Get kids involved in community projects. Teach them to love themselves, and it will spread.



    • Unfortunately this is all good in theory but when the parents of these bruts come to a meeting (if they do), they are usually just as belligerent as their children. They show no skills in raising their kids and aren’t willing to work at a solution. They blame others and that is the real issue to me. We need more education in educating parents how to parent and support systems to achieve this. Making someone do something will never work, they have to want to do it and understand it. The bully and his/her parents are so far away from seeing this it is hard to get through to them. I have seen this with adults in doing divorce mediation and well as other adult bullies. They see their side and their side only. So sad really. Teaching tolerance is a full time job and most people who bully aren’t willing or able to devote that much attention to it, unfortunately.


        • Gary

        • July 2, 2012 at 9:46 am
        • Reply

        Madgew, I’d agree that teaching tolerance is a full-time job. But I think saying a sit down is just good in theory feels a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water. As a point of reference I might use my own experience in divorce mediations. Both my ex-wife and I went in plenty of times with firm, rigid points of view and yet I was able to find ways to see things differently and have my ex see things differently. Was it like pushing a boulder up a hill? Yes. And are more poeple prone to not seeing anything differently? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be an effective tool. There could very well be better ways, but having seen how the schools handle it with one of my other kids, I think getting all the adults into the room is a better alternative.


      • Judy N

      • July 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm
      • Reply

      I do agree with your analysis. And even though parents may be belligerent, it’s important to ask the questions you pose. It’s a way of opening up the conversation. And that’s important. I think education about bullying in school, about the fact that bullies project their own self hatred is really important too. And I think the kind of work Hollye mentions is invaluable. Thanks for an insightful and very well written column.


      • Escott

      • July 2, 2012 at 6:31 pm
      • Reply

      Gary, another great article. So many times people react without taking a breath and counting to 3. The first reaction of a parent of a bully might be to deflect criticism, but by respectfully asking the questions you pose in a non threatening atmosphere, you might just get them to stop and think about how they are raising their child. It can’t hurt to try, whereas that judge publicly humiliating that girl is sure to have negative consequences.


      • Carol

      • September 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm
      • Reply

      As the Drew Ferraro case goes to trial, we will get an inside look at how bullying really works much of the time. Drew was the boy who committed suicde at CVHS by jumping off a two story building into the lunch crowd. Drew had a history of behavior problems and mutual negative peer interaction. That’s right. He was socially awkward, he hassled other kids and was hassled in return. Bullying requires three things: An aggresser, a person who is rewarding to attack, and approval of the bully’s social/family group. This is not to say that it’s OK to bully or that you get what you deserve, but it is to say that we need to look at and address the behavior of all of the people involved; the aggresser, the victim AND the crowd that’s egging them on.



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