Bullying isn’t a Kid Problem

Bullying is bad, hence seemingly-ubiquitous “anti-bullying” programs that seem to aim at simply reminding children to be nice. Meanwhile, these children continue to assimilate to a world whose rules and social structures often model the opposite of nice. Most kids have seen adults bully their peers and have seen adults bully each other. They are pulled deeper into the complexities of our world, where “nice” is often conflated with unwavering obedience to authority and usually opposes acting in solidarity with marginalized people. No morning assembly – no matter how feel-good or guilt-laden in tone – is going to change that.

Neurodivergent kids bear a large portion of the world’s bullying. Dare we pretend that’s surprising? First, many of their classmates can probably recall a time they heard an adult make a derogatory comment about the child – and often directly to the child. Suddenly, “be nice to your classmates” has yet another exception. Next, adults cultivate a world that rejects and bullies neurodivergent people in a variety of ways. Many children have already had an adult tell them that people who don’t make eye contact aren’t trustworthy, or they have watched an adult make fun of someone the adult deemed “stupid.” Finally, children are exposed to media that so often takes advantage of the “weird” character for a laugh. How many of the gross neighbors, awkward first dates, and annoying classmates in popular media look like neurodivergent kids and their adult counterparts? How many of their abuses occur with laugh tracks in the background? Writers probably don’t mean to code these characters as neurodivergent. The trope is older than them, and its impact is a reality that many are unaware of simply because they do not have to be aware.

As humans, we are often primed to see ourselves as the protagonist. We can see through simple observation of human behavior the tendency that our species has to see criticisms, warnings, and even statistics as meant for other people – not for ourselves. How many children, then, while listening to anti-bullying speeches, think, “wow, people shouldn’t bully!” Of course, there are also several who think, “I shouldn’t have been so mean that time.” In hindsight, when tempers are no longer flaring and recent events are no longer priming behavior, it’s often much easier to see what could have been different. But in the midst of temptations, an hour after an assembly, it’s just as easy to tell ourselves, “this is different.” But it’s not. It’s all painfully the same. It won’t change until we do.

We change it by doing the things the neurodiversity movement and other movements for social justice have long been telling us to do. We let those who are negatively impacted by the current zeitgeist guide us. When neurodivergent people’s stories and criticisms are taken seriously and individual people make an effort to shift their language and ideas, the status quo is challenged. Bullying, at long last, is challenged.