Wednesday, November 16

Standing Up: Communication Stops Bullies And Abusers

The knock at the door was fierce, followed by an aggressive sequence of door bell rings. It's not unexpected when you have a preteen in the house, even if most of his friends show more respect.

It wasn't a friend.

I may have never known it, but my son came bounding up the stairs a moment later.

"Can I go outside?" he said. "Some kid wants to fight me."

"Um, no you may not," I said, still in disbelief over what I heard.

"What should I tell them?"

"I don't know," I said. "Tell them to piss off before they piss me off."

So that is what he did, but not exactly. He told the kid to come over tomorrow at high noon, a nearly subconscious nod to the diminishing reruns of westerns that some of us grew up with three decades ago. I was amused, but still not pleased.

As three kids loitered in front of the house, the primary antagonist still stung by my son's matter-of-fact response and the promise of a new fight time the next day, I asked my son what it was all about.

Turns out, the principal aggressor, who had a head or two of height on my son but no martial arts sparring medals to speak of, was nothing more than a bully. My son explained it all on the quick.

The bully had been harassing a girl at school, a friend of my son's. A few weeks ago, she would have considered herself an online friend of the bully. But his social network conversations with her had recently turned from banter to advances. She wasn't interested. He couldn't take no for an answer.

Apparently, it wasn't enough to keep the rejection to himself. Every time the bully would pass her in the school hallway, he call her a bitch. Every time he gathered with a few friends at lunch, he would whine away about how she was no good. And every time he had a chance, with a glance or sometimes more physical stance, he would squeeze in on her space and make her feel uncomfortable, vulnerable, and afraid.

My son put a stop to it. He called him out. And while he wasn't looking for a fight, he was looking to stop the harassment.

"I think you should leave her alone," he had said. And the bully left her alone, almost immediately.

But like many troubled and tormented youths today, stories tend to spread. Eyewitness accounts are sometimes embellished. And the bully knew that if he let the shutdown stand, his reputation for toughness, despite being propped up by nothing more than fragile fakery, would be at an end.

"There isn't going to be fight tomorrow," I told my son. "There isn't going to be a fight at all."

Since the bully and his friends were still loitering in front of our driveway, I took the opportunity to have a chat with them. I did because I already knew something about bullies that the bullies never count on.

Most of them are cowards, crushed out easily any time you hold a mirror to their faces, exposing them for what they really are under their puffed chests and furrowed brows. I had something to tell him.

Only fearless communication can crush a bully and end abuse.

Bullies, child molesters, and domestic abusers have one thing in common. They hate open and honest communication. It makes them powerless, especially because they draw their strength from secrets.

They, people allegedly like Arthur "Jerry" Sandusky from the Penn State scandal, count on any victims and occasional witnesses to cover up the destruction in a shroud of silence, leaving their misdeeds to be shared with the unfortunate few who empower them out of fear, ignorance, or lack of character.

I'm not the only one who knows it too. Half a world away in Australia, Kristin Brumm is organizing a global online event to bring awareness to domestic violence. It's called Speak Out, named after her decision to come forward and put an end to her own abusive relationship. She was lucky.

She didn't have a champion like my son. She didn't even have a witness like the one that Mike McQueary could have been. She only had herself; and frankly, she is remarkably fortunate to have found such courage even if she was unfortunate enough to find it too late and at a price too high.

Today, Brumm struggles each day to make up for her silence. She does it in a way that requires an equal measure of courage. She is helping others by asking bloggers to speak out about abuse on November 18. I'm ahead of the curve, only because I would like you to consider speaking out too.

They way I see it, the whole lot of them fall in together: teenage bullies, child molesters, and domestic abusers. All of them prey on people, trying to make themselves feel big by trying to make others feel helpless. But the truth is that none of them, whether they use physical or psychological abuse, has any more power than they are afforded. Take away their secrets and they crumble when someone calls them out.

What I told the neighborhood bully, suspending his reign. 

I didn't have to say much when I went outside, commanding him and his friends to stay off my property. I told them that there wasn't going to be a fight, not because my son wasn't ready but because I wasn't going to allow it. (Given my son possesses a second degree black belt, it would have hardly been fair.)

"My son isn't afraid to fight you, but I won't allow it," I said. "But you need to know that he would whip the shit out of you if I did allow it. So you might want to move along before I change my mind."

The kid shrugged, so I pressed.

"There isn't going to be a fight today, or tomorrow. And I'll call the cops the next time I see you here," I said, as they finally turned and started to walk away. "Am I clear? Because I can't hear you."

The kid paused for a second before burping out a timid and barely audible "Yes, sir."

But then something else happened. Much like the apparent pain caused by the initial shutdown a few days before, he recoiled as he faced is own embarrassment.

"Tell your son to mind his own business next time," he spat.

"What? No, I will not," I said. "He did the right thing. So maybe what you need to do is go home, wipe your nose, and learn how to be a man, without bullying girls. Yeah, he told me what you did. You're a punk. And I'm glad he stopped you."

He shoulders sank as he sulked away. But even more telling was how his friends reacted. When I had wandered outside, they looked to be as tight as thieves. As they turned the corner, they were frayed. His friends were obviously unaware that they had turned out to support someone who bullies girls.

The bully, I'm told, gives both the girl and my son a fairly wide berth at school. We can only hope the lessons go further than protecting the pair of them. I think it will, as long as people shut bullying down.

And therein lies the lesson. As one of my friends said when I mentioned it on Facebook a few days ago: Teaching our kids to be bully proof isn't enough. We have to teach them to stand up to it. He's right. All too often, bullies will grow up to be tomorrow's domestic abusers or child predators.

There is only one remedy. Speak out. Stand up. And shut them down. Do it today.
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