Growing up in the Delta, I learned that bullies were a dime a dozen.
In grammar school, I recall an older schoolmate who walked with a leg brace and a crutch, the result of a crippling bout with polio. Recess was always a nightmare for him. Playground bullies descended upon him almost daily, kicking his crutch away and then kicking dust into his face, laughing with 10-year-old bravado. He made a valiant attempt to fight back, swinging his crutch in a wide arc on his way down, hoping to connect with one of the bullies. But that was a losing battle he never came close to winning. He compensated by developing a wonderful singing voice, never failing to bring tears with his version of "America the Beautiful."
So it went on my playground, which as it turns out was not unique. Bullying is more common in elementary school than it is in high school. It is the age of choice for bullies, with about 20 percent of American children experiencing the twisted wrath of playground bullies.
For victims, the results can be devastating. Research shows that later in life, victims may display high levels of anxiety, depression and experience relationship problems. They question their own self-worth and reason that they must deserve abuse. Sometimes their self-loathing escalates into revenge fantasies and actual violence.
Bullies have problems of their own. Typically, they come from families in which the parents are emotionally distant and seldom if ever express affection to one another. When they misbehave, they are usually spanked or whipped with a belt. They are drawn to bullying because they are unpopular. When they bully those who are smaller or weaker—individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities are prime targets—it makes them feel better about themselves and, unfortunately, helps them make friends with other students.
Studies show that up to 40 percent of childhood bullies grow into adult bullies, with a high percentage garnering criminal convictions for violence-related crimes. These are the criminals who are not satisfied to simply take your wallet. They feel compelled to punch, stab or shoot their victims. Not surprisingly, many men who abuse women were playground bullies, where they specialized in hurting girls. I remember one bully in my school that made a habit of punching girls in the chest with his fist once they began developing breasts. The girls were afraid to complain, so he was never punished.
Sometimes adult bullies find ways of carrying on a tradition of bullying. Some become lawyers so that they can harangue witnesses in court. Others become talk-radio hosts, where they get away with belittling guests and callers who disagree with them. A few become police officers, at least until they are terminated for abuse or intimidation.
Bullying is not confined to males. Girls also bully their peers. Although they are more likely to launch verbal or e-mail attacks against their victims, they also can display a tendency for violence. We've all seen news clips of female athletes in their teens kicking, punching and choking their opponents on the playing field. Some adults seem to find pleasure in watching such displays, which is a major reason that so few girls are ever seriously punished for using violence against other girls. Some misguided adults snicker and call them catfights.
Ignoring the problem will not make it go away, so what should be done about bullies? Early family intervention is key, whether the bully is male or female. This type of intervention is one in which social workers and psychologists have a good track record. Children who bully should be referred to a professional at the first sign of trouble.
Sometimes victims improvise solutions of their own.
When I was in the third grade, a bully in my class pummeled me almost daily. I wouldn't fight back because my mother had made me promise not to after the death of my father. Being a single mother was tough. She didn't need the aggravation of me fighting other kids.
One day the principal paid her a visit.
"What's up with Jimmy?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"A bully is whipping up on him every day, and he won't fight back."
"I made him promise not to."
"Well, I think that is a mistake."
Mother reversed her policy and the next day at school, with only the slightest of provocations, I lit into that bully like a windmill on speed, fists pounding. He never bullied me again and became my best friend (not an unusual occurrence when bullies are challenged).
I don't advocate using violence against bullies, but if there is a socially acceptable method of taking them on—supervised boxing comes to mind—I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing. Otherwise, it's back to therapy.
James Dickerson is the director of "You've Got a Friend," a federally funded socialization program at Hudspeth Regional Center that assists individuals with developmental disabilities, and the co-author of an upcoming textbook for social workers.