Bullying In Children’s Literature

bullying children's literature

“Middle school wasn’t much fun for me. We had some bullying going on, and the best thing to do was to stay out of their way.”

Jeff Kinney, author of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid
bulling diary of a wimpy kid
Rodrick Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid early films. Rodrick bullies his younger brother.

WHAT IS BULLYING?

Bullying is repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological aggressive behaviour by a person or group directed towards a less powerful person or group that is intended to cause harm, distress or fear.

If two people disagree, that is not bullying.

If two people dislike each other, that is not bullying.

A single episode of aggression also does not count as bullying. This is especially important because an act of retaliation on the part of the bullied does not mean ‘both sides are at fault’.

COMMON BULLYING TACTICS

When authors cover the topic of bullying it can be super helpful to young readers, explicitly teaching what bullying is and how to recognise it for what it is. Even if we as adults have no further advice — I don’t consider myself qualified to give advice on how to deal with bullying — recognising bullying behaviour is a huge help to kids on the receiving end of it.

So, what does bullying look like? Some of these are obvious to neurotypical kids but in my opinion even neurotypical kids need explicit training on what bullying looks like. By putting these tactics into words, we are holding kids to higher standards. They then hold each other to higher standards.

  1. Touching someone in anger, or touching someone who doesn’t want to be touched
  2. Saying something nasty then putting ‘just joking’ on the end as a way of blaming others and demeaning the reaction of the victim
  3. Spreading untrue information about a person
  4. Threatening to tell an authority figure that a person has done something they have not
  5. Sharing true but personal information about a person
  6. Taking photos of someone without their consent, worse when shared, even worse via social media
  7. Mimicking the way someone walks/talks/eats etc
  8. Excluding someone because of skin colour/religion/culture and similar
  9. Microagressions are also a subtle form of bullying e.g. constant reference to someone’s difference from the wider peer group
  10. Barring someone from entering or exiting a space (commonly stairwells, toilets, shared play spaces)
  11. Practical jokes and pranks which are designed to humiliate someone, probably in front of a group
  12. Going into someone else’s bag/pockets/locker/desk without their consent
  13. Or more generally, messing around with someone else’s stuff with the intention of annoying them or shaming them
  14. Touching someone’s clothing, especially with the intention of exposing their body to others
  15. Provoking someone to anger, in general, hoping they will explode and get into trouble with teachers and parents
  16. Threatening to withdraw friendship unless someone does what you want them to do
  17. More generally, any behaviour designed to control another person. A lot of the bullying that goes on between girls mirrors exactly the abuse we call ‘coercive control’ when it happens in an adult relationship. Unfortunately, a history of falling victim to coercive control as a child/teenager primes someone to fall victim to it as an adult, too. (We can flip this, but we have to first name it, and teach it explicitly.)

HOW IS BULLYING TREATED IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?

Almost any story set in a school or a school stand-in will involve opposition between peers. Bullying is a common topic in children’s literature from chapter books onwards.

Adults know way more about how bullying works than a couple of generations ago. This can be traced through fiction (or ask any elderly person about their experiences of bullying in school).

Fictional bullies occurred frequently in school/boarding school stories, and it wasn’t treated as bullying, but more of a ‘character building exercise’, designed to prepare school aged children for a world in which they’ll be ranked in an adult hierarchy.

Today’s authors show a better understanding of the true nature of bullying, in which bullying is a social system, rather than a person:

All kinds of attitudes have changed, mostly for the better. Bullies were hated in Tom Brown’s Schooldays but now, as in Louis Sachar’s Holes, they are both villains and victims.

Amanda Craig, writing about the third golden age of children’s literature

We’re all doing better now, but still have a long way to go. How are adults, specifically adult writers, still getting bullying a bit wrong?

BULLIES WHO LOOK LIKE STEREOTYPICAL BULLIES

“There was a bully at Peter’s school and his name was Barry Tamerlane. He didn’t look like a bully” writes Ian McEwan in chapter four of Daydreamer. The explicit and direct message here is that “There’s no such person who looks like a bully.”

He wasn’t a scruff, his face wasn’t ugly, he didn’t have a frightening leer, or scabs on his knuckles and he didn’t carry dangerous weapons. he wasn’t particularly big. Nor was he one of those small, wiry, boney types who can turn out to be vicious fighters. At home he wasn’t smacked like many bullies are, and nor was he spoiled. His parents were kind but firm, and quite unsuspecting. His voice wasn’t loud of hoarse, his eyes weren’t hard and small and he wasn’t even very stupid. In fact, he was rather round and soft, though not quite a fatty, with glasses, and a spongy pink face, and a silver brace on his teeth. He often wore a sad and helpless look which appealed to some grown-ups and was useful when he had to talk himself out of trouble.

Ian McEwan, Daydreamer

I do wonder if there’s an unfortunate implicit message in here, though. When we describe the appearance of bullies, no matter how we do it, we’re conveying the implicit message that if you just study this hard enough, you’ll find you can typecast people according to how they look. ‘Bullies don’t look how you think they look… they actually look like this’, is one possible interpretation of the passage above, when I believe the intention is ‘You can’t pick a bully based on what they look like.’

McEwan does side with the young reader and does what most authors do: He acknowledges the fact that adults will never understand the complicated and subtle social dynamics of adolescents:

Of course, Peter kept out of the bully’s way, but he took a special interest in him. Barry Tamerlane was a mystery. On his eleventh birthday Barry invited a dozen boys from school to a party. Peter tried to get out of it but his parents would not listen. They themselves liked Mr and Mrs Tamerlane, and so, by the terms of grown-up logic, Peter must surely like Barry.

Ian McEwan, Daydreamer
MODEL VS IMPERFECT CHARACTERS

Authors sometimes set up a character web with ‘model’ children versus ‘imperfect’ children. By the end of the book, the young reader is supposed to have worked out for themselves who is in the wrong, and mimic the behaviour of the model children in real life. An example of this kind of book is Pigface by Catherine Robinson. The focus character learns a lesson when he breaks his leg playing football. While he’s away on the couch, a new boy joins the class. This new boy is preternaturally mature. When our focus character returns to school he realises he should stop calling Harry ‘Pigface’ because he probably doesn’t like it. He has also learned to stick up for other people, and not to judge others at face value. The reveal is that this cool new boy was bullied at his previous school.

This story for emerging readers does not attempt mimesis. It attempts (and achieves) a clear line between bullying and friendly behaviour. The reality is that a boy who was bullied at his previous school is likely to continue to be bullied at a new school, though bullying cultures do differ from school to school. It is possible to start with a clean slate in a new environment, though perhaps not quite so cleanly.

WRITING DEVELOPMENTALLY INCORRECT BULLYING

When do people start forming social hierarchies? As soon as they start interacting with groups of peers. But when does that real ‘mean-girl’ crap start happening?

“The mean-girl thing is happening much sooner than everyone realizes,” our elementary school counselor told me when I called to talk it through. “I see it all the time.”

The Washington Post

The parent who wrote this article found it first started happening to her daughter in fourth grade. I also have a daughter of that age (in NSW Australia it’s called ‘year four’) and I can confirm it started happening this year. What form does it take? For my daughter, it has involved social exclusion. Friend has a birthday, brings enough cupcakes for everybody, gives extra cupcakes to her ‘besties’, refuses to give cupcake to one girl in particular as some kind of social punishment. It’s easy to almost laugh at this ridiculous example, but if this happened to us in our workplace, we’d be equally wounded. Apart from blatant social exclusion:

The most common ways girls ages 8 to 12 bully is by mocking, teasing and calling people names, says Cosette Taillac, a child and adolescent therapist

The Washington Post

Though that article focuses specifically on the types of bullying that goes on among girls, it strikes me that at 8-12 years old, there’s no significant difference between how girls and boys bully others. Boys use this same strategy of ‘mocking, teasing and calling people names’. However, the nature of these names might be different. Because of a cultural emphasis, girls are more vulnerable to commentary about physical appearance:

“Girls at this age are extremely conscious about how they look in relationship to others,” Taillac says. “Any way they look ‘different’ is a potential target. This goes beyond weight — it can also be about being taller or shorter, skin color, or even about things like having freckles or pimples.”

The Washington Post

(No one is saying boys aren’t also picked on due to how they look; the difference is that all girls are judged based on their looks no matter what they look like, whereas physical appearance only comes into it for boys when the boy does actually fall outside the ‘accepted norm’, and ‘the norm’ is wider for boys. Which is of course no comfort to boys who do fall outside the accepted norm for boys. And boys are getting more judgemental about each other’s appearance, unfortunately. Living in the exact same culture, it’s getting worse  for girls as well.)

On a more positive note, this form of bullying has all but disappeared by senior high school.

This opinion piece written by a teenager echoes something I’d already noticed myself:

In my school, most people like each other! We might not like the same brands or bands, but that doesn’t mean we have a burning desire to watch those more traditional or popular fail. (That would be middle school.)

While this HuffPost article is painting too broad a stroke with an inflammatory headline about not liking YA novels in general (there are many different genres within that category), the writer is pointing out that bullying takes on a different form altogether once students move through high school. (But it doesn’t disappear completely.)

HOW BULLYING CHANGES DURING ADOLESCENCE

Bullying among the 8-10 year old set looks completely different from bullying in senior high school. This needs to be reflected in stories.

I Study The Psychology Of Adolescent Bullies is about Donald Trump but offers an insight into how bullying works at each age. The subheading sums it up: Kids who dominate other kids are often popular — for a little while.

Below is the reason given for why middle school is terrible for bullying, though I grew up in a country where middle school was often attached to the primary school — no major reshuffling necessary. I don’t know how the social dynamics are different in those cases but:

Although bullies are never liked, they are popular in certain situations. Our research shows that bullies initially become “cool” during their first year in middle school. We think that this link between bullying and popularity is strengthened by the collective uncertainty associated with the transition to middle school. As youth are trying to acclimate to the new setting, many worry about their own social standing and ask: Where do I fit in? Who should I hang out with? When the future is uncertain, it is vital to know not only where one fits, but also who is in charge. Dominance hierarchies help group members find their places and form alliances, and bullying is among the most primitive ways to establish dominance.

I have noticed in some stories, especially those on TV, middle school level bullying continues long past its due date. By the time students are about 15, explicit, racist or un-woke bullying behaviours have morphed into social dynamics far more subtle. But what does it turn into?

Our research on middle-schoolers also shows that the popularity of bullies wears off after the transition period. That is, after the first year in middle school, bullies’ popularity gradually decreases. […] When a young child is questioned whether he ate the last cookie (even when there are crumbs on his lips), the immature response is: “I didn’t do it.” Children deny the act before they learn that it is socially beneficial to admit the wrongdoing but deny any negative intent. Teens tend to become even more skilful and elaborate on various mitigating circumstances, such as not turning in their homework due to illness or because they were helping an ailing grandmother. These accounts reduce the likelihood of punishment and facilitate forgiveness.

If bullying is still going on in senior high school, it is insidious and covert and ridiculously difficult to deal with. It can usually be denied completely. ‘Social exclusion’ looks a lot like, simply, exercising your right to choose your own friends.

The Winner by Norman Rockwell

COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT BULLYING

  1. Bullying is a problem that bullying people have. It does not follow that someone targeted by a system of persistent bullying is the one doing something wrong.
  2. Children and teens need friends. Friends aren’t just ‘the icing on the cake’.
  3. In order to be happy, children don’t need a wide circle of friends. Sometimes all it takes is one friend. The difference between no friends and one friend is like night and day.
  4. Unkind behaviour toward children without social status is rewarded with social capital and elevated social status, because it highlights the status differential.
  5. It is not easy — in fact it is an act of rare and unusual bravery — to step in and defend someone with low social capital. Defending a low-status child is like touching someone with “cooties,” so bystanders rarely step in.
  6. A child at the bottom of the social ladder becomes “untouchable.” Even if that child has a delightful personality and loads of friends elsewhere, in a social system in which she lacks social capital, she is not likely to acquire friends. Take away point: a child can have loads of friends in one situation and none in another, because ‘untouchable’ cultures can pop up anywhere if not kept in check.
  7. Children with status erroneously believe that the reason untouchables have no social status is because they are repulsive, but in truth, it is precisely the reverse. The lack of social status is what makes an untouchable appear repulsive.
  8. Adults are no more likely to sacrifice their own social capital to stop bullying than children are. Adults don’t magically go through a character arc in which they are immune to all this crap. Most of us quietly become part of the system.
  9. When adults instruct kids to simply ‘walk away’ from bullying, we are indoctrinating them into this system. Parents justify this by going back to the concept of ‘freedom’. ‘My child must be granted the freedom to choose her own friends’.

—Happiness and the Pursuit of Leadership

Can we end the whole “you attract who you are” myth? There are abusive, terrible and mediocre people who latch on to vulnerable, kind and generous folks.

Another myth to abolish: You don’t have to “love yourself” first in order to be worthy of love in return. You are worthy of being loved, of being safe and well-cared for regardless of how you feel about yourself.

@femmefeministe

RELATED RESOURCES ON BULLYING

Amy Alkon coined the term ‘social greed’ to describe someone’s unwillingness to risk their own social capital without an anticipated return on investment.

A Glutton For Punishment by Richard Yates

ABOUT THE STORY

Written in the early 1960s, “A Glutton For Punishment” is about a man who gets the sack from an unspecified office job in New York City. He considers keeping this information from his wife.

SETTING

In this post-Mad Men era, it’s impossible to  read Yates and not envisage scenes from Mad Men.

Yates’s revival might simply be one example of our current fascination with mid-century America. Another example — or cause — of this fascination is Mad Men, which recently won the Emmy Award for best drama series, and has replaced The Wireas the show serious-minded people watch seriously and write about seriously in serious-minded publications.

Bookslut

The hustle and bustle of New York, in which everyone seems to have somewhere to go, contrasts against the aimlessness of Walt as he struggles with what he is to do and where he should go now that he is between jobs.

New York 1962

Walter Henderson works on Lexington Avenue. Here’s a photo from the mid-seventies:

Lexington Avenue 1975

This collection, first published in 1962, pinpoints, like a lepidopterist, a particular epoch in American history – the postwar world of dissatisfied veterans, young men swaying uneasily on the lower rungs of the career ladder, married to unsatisfactory women without whose typing job they would be destitute; ambitious but miserable young writers trapped in inappropriate jobs; unglamorous pre-dinner martinis, jazz bars, teachers despised by their pupils….can describe a world, and the state of mind it creates, so economically, so persuasively, that you stay your hand even as it reaches for the full bottle of paracetamol or opened razor.

from The Guardian Review of Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness

CHARACTERS

If you’ve read Yates’ most popular novel, Revolutionary Road, you may feel that the character of Walt is familiar — to me he seems like a mish-mash of the two main male characters of Revolutionary Road: Frank Wheeler and Shep Campbell. Like Frank, who gets up before his wife each morning so that he can compose himself into the man he thinks April needs him to be, Walt is careful to shield his inner turmoil from his wife. But Walt’s life situation is more like that of Shep, who has a big family to care for, weighing down on him, and a wife who he has started to view as unattractive.

In a short story, characters — even main characters — must be painted with a few deft strokes. In this case, we get to know Walter first as an uncoordinated, rather melodramatic boy. When we meet him as an adult, our view is coloured by what we know of him as the boy, but we are told that underneath the show of manhood, he is still the same boy:

He had become a sober, keen-looking young man now, with clothes that showed the influence of an Eastern university and neat brown hair that was just beginning to thin out on top. Years of good health had made him less slight, and though he still had trouble with his coordination it showed up mainly in minor things nowadays, like an inability to coordinate his hat, his wallet, his theater tickets and his change without making his wife stop and wait for him, or a tendency to push heavily against doors marked “Pull.” He looked, at any rate, the picture of sanity and competence as he sat there in the office.

In just one long sentence followed by a short one, we learn all about adult Walt that we need to know. Note how deftly the following information was inserted, seemingly as an aside:

  • He is one of the All-American privileged, with a university education and in good health
  • He is married
  • He has middle-class interests such as going to the theatre

THEMES

Gender is a performance, learned around the time of adolescence.

To this female reader, A Glutton For Punishment seems to be first and foremost a story about the performance of masculinity. Femininity, too, is a performance, and people who perform their gender most carefully do seem to find each other. Walt’s wife performs femininity on the couple’s first date, when she waits at the top of the library steps just so her date will have to greet her by climbing up to her pedestal. This is the foundation upon which their relationship has been built, even though they have shared their secret motivations about that first date since getting to know each other. In some ways, nothing has changed. Walt sees his job as the breadwinner and protector of his family. When his wife sees through his mask of composure, she is no longer attractive to him — what he seems to want from a relationship is one-way support: It is his job to shield the woman from life’s stressors, such as firings. It became a matter of individual performance, almost an art, Yates writes of the childhood game of falling down dead, but he is equally describing the man’s role in a marriage.

These adult roles are learned at some time during childhood. For Walt, his adult-socialisation began in earnest when some older boys laughed at them for playing their falling-down-dead game.

The idea of mystique in a long-term relationship may be alluring, but you can’t keep it up.

Though we tend to think of women (Marilyn Monroe types) when we think of mystique, or perhaps because of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique which, not co-incidentally, was published just one year after this collection of short stories. Just as women were told that the pinnacle of happiness could be found in immersing themselves fully in home and family, men at this time had equally rigid expectations heaped upon them: Their role was to support this single breadwinner lifestyle. Just as women were expected to hide their longing for autonomy and professions, men were expected to completely mask their emotional vulnerabilities, even to their wives.

There are privileges that come with masculine autonomy, and with great privilege comes heavy responsibility.

We see this time and again on Mad Men — a male worker is fired and his female secretary is reassigned. The female secretaries, of course, earned very little in comparison to the men, all of whom play in a high stakes game. When Walter Henderson tells his secretary not to worry, that they’ll find her another position, the juxtaposition between their situations is stark: She seems lucky because she will have a job tomorrow; on the other hand, she will never be more than a secretary. Her real job is no doubt to find a husband and start a family.

TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Two Eras Of A Character Make For A Fuller Character Study

Many stories either dive straight into the action of the story or keep any backstory for chapter two. (Or in a short story, backstory tends to be dished out in small quantities and the author hopes it’s sufficiently interesting so as not to interfere with pacing.) A Glutton For Punishment is quite different because we meet the boy before we meet the man.

There are several reasons why this story structure has been chosen:

  1. Boyhood comes before manhood, so this is a logical sequencing
  2. This is a story about masculinity, and the era before the masculine performance is significant as a counterexample — a boyhood in which ‘falling down dead’ was no more than a game.

The Ending Matches The Beginning To Present A Clear Juxtaposition

From the beginning: Then the performer would stop, turn, stand poised for a moment in graceful agony, pitch over and fall down the hill in a whirl of arms and legs and a splendid cloud of dust, and finally sprawl flat at the bottom, a rumpled corpse.

The final sentences: His right hand came up and touched the middle button of his shirt, as if to unfasten it, and then with a great deflating sigh he collapsed backward into the chair, one foot sliding out on the carpet and the other curled beneath him. It was the most graceful thing he’d done all day. “They got me,” he said.

There’s much that is comical about the description of the nine-year-olds’ game of falling down dead: Back then, it ‘was the very zenith of romance’. Then there is the slapstick-type description of the actions and sounds made by the boys. This of course exists to contrast with the adult reality of getting fired while a breadwinner; an altogether more serious challenge.

Humour, too, serves as juxtaposition against the sadness.

Yates is often called a ‘depressing’ writer, but most of these stories are as equally humorous as they are sad.

Angela Meyer at Crikey

Just the right amount of telling versus showing

It’s easy to fall prey to the idea that when writing a short story you must show every single thing, but this story is a prime example of what is best told rather than shown. Take the sentence that segues us from the childhood era to the present:

But he had occasion to remember [the childhood play scene], vividly, one May afternoon nearly twenty-five years later in a Lexington Avenue office building, while he sat at his desk pretending to work and waiting to be fired.

We are not shown much of his firing, and not told why he is being fired, because this is not the interest point of the story.

STORY SPECS

A Glutton For Punishment is the fifth story in Yates’ collection Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness, which was published very soon after he wrote Revolutionary Road. This story is very much from the world of Revolutionary Road.

Written from close third person point of view, focusing on the character of Walt. This allows the reader to empathise mostly (if not entirely) with Walt. We are inclined to empathise with a character who suffers some misfortune right at the beginning of a story — and of course this is not the beginning — we as readers have no idea what has prompted the firing. If we’d been let in on the extent of his incompetence, we may feel less warmth towards him, and more annoyance.

One of Yates’ biggest strengths is the way he gets you in so close to the characters – so close you can hear their thoughts and plans and see their hearts ticking – yet simultaneously at a distance so that you may see how they are perceived in the greater scheme of things. Yates suggests both compassion and pity through this kind of writing – and not just for the characters on the page, but for the person sitting next to you, and even for your own stupid, small (and often joyous) existence.

Angela Meyer, Crikey

COMPARE AND CONTRAST “A GLUTTON FOR PUNISHMENT”

While Mad Men is the more obvious TV analogue, in which Don Draper has literally stolen another man’s identity — a metaphor for the way in which men of mid-century America were forced to cultivate both a public and private, hidden self, I would like to consider for comparison a very popular TV series with a modern setting.

Perhaps it’s partly because the main characters share the same first name, but Walter Henderson from A Glutton For Punishment faces the same challenge to his masculinity as Walter White of Breaking Bad, especially the Walter White of season one (before he ‘breaks bad’):

  • Walter Henderson gets the sack for poor performance; Walter White is under-utilised, underpaid and disrespected by his students.
  • Walter Henderson hides his sacking from his wife, hoping to work things out on his own; Walter White hides his diagnosis of lung cancer from Skyler, hoping the same.
  • Walter Henderson feels he walks around with a thin veneer of calm, but his lack of co-ordination sometimes betrays him; Walter White is an intellectually clever science geek who is disrespected by alpha male types, exemplified by characters such as Hank. Walter Henderson…was a slightly, poorly coordinated boy, and this was the only thing even faintly like a sport at which he excelled.
  • Both of the Walts have wives who can see when something is wrong. This annoying astuteness makes the wives less attractive to the men (and in the case of Breaking Bad, to much of the masculine viewing public, also). Though the eras are different, the household roles are the same: both of the Walts keep out of the kitchen, supporting stay-at-home-Moms who look after the family. (I have wondered why Skyler isn’t working outside the home in the lead up to her second birth — this is a plot convenience rather than a realistic one, given that the family is struggling to make ends meet.)

Of course, Walter White takes a lot longer to admit defeat than Walter Henderson does — in fact, it takes five seasons of action before he admits that he is motivated by the need to prove his masculinity, and therefore his worth, to himself.

Walter White and Skyler

The first section of A Glutton For Punishment is about the innocent fun of childhood games, and the way in which children sometimes process the issue of death (and general failure) by incorporating dramatic scenarios into their free play. In this respect, the first part of A Glutton For Punishment is reminiscent of All The Dear Little Animals by Ulf Nilsson, in which a small troop of children go to great lengths finding dead animals and giving them funeral services.

All The Dear Little Animals

WRITE YOUR OWN

Looking  back on your own childhood, did you play games which now seem a little off-kilter? What life issue were you trying to come to terms with by playing these games?

Is there a part of your childhood self that you feel is masked most of the time, but which sometimes reveals itself in certain situations?