Response to a Bullying Comment

Well-known blogger Sarah Hoffman, who has been writing about the bullying facing her young son, has asked me to collaborate with her on a response to one of her commenters.  Here, in Sarah’s words, is her introduction to our post:

After I posted Tired, the ninth post in my series about combating bullying at my son’s school, I received some lovely, supportive comments from my readers. Thank you. Your words give me hope, encouragement, and strength.

And then I received this comment, in which a reader named Robin Hanson told me that I’m “asinine” and “delusional.” And that Sam should grow a thicker skin–that he should stop acting feminine, lose weight, and be “less conspicuous.”

I should mention that Robin Hanson, or a man claiming to be Robin Hanson, later denied having posted this comment, claiming that someone else claiming to be him wrote the comment in his stead.

“This is a dog eat dog world,” Mr.-Hanson-or-not-Mr.-Hanson told me, and I should “cut the cord” and realize my son needs to defend himself. He said I am an “overprotective mother” who is obstructing society.

And then Mr. Hanson told me he hoped I didn’t take his comments personally.

Oh? He also recommended the Atkins diet for Sam. Mr. Hanson believes that Sam is an overeater who lacks self-control, plays video games all day, and doesn’t exercise.

Because, you know, that’s the story with ALL fat people.

Mr. Hanson wrapped up his very long comment by asking, “You have to take control at some point, so why not today?”

Well honey, let me tell you.

This is mama taking control.

Of course, the first step of taking control was acknowledging that my blood was boiling a bit too much for me to speak coherently. The second step was re-reading your awesome comments, which helped. And the third step was engaging the help of the super-charged anti-bullying activist Carrie Goldman.

You may remember Carrie as the mom of Katie the Star Wars Girl. Carrie’s writing about the teasing Katie faced for carrying a Star Wars water bottle to school launched a national outcry against bullying, followed by over 15,000 comments from websites around the world in support of Katie’s right to be exactly who she is.

You’ll be pleased to know that Carrie–whose posts about princess boysprincess girls,  and gendered marketing are all well worth reading–is now working on a book about her experiences and bullying prevention.

I asked Carrie to join me as a guest blogger in order to respond to Mr. Hanson’s comment. So, so, SO many thanks to Carrie for taking up the challenge, and for being an inspiration to me–and to so many parents and kids around the world.  Here is what Carrie has to say. Today.


Mr. Hanson asks, “Why is it the duty of the school… the taxpayers…the parents you’ve attempted to ‘rally,’ to devote so much time, effort, energy, money, and resources to such a small proportion of the population… (your son)?”

Mr. Hanson, here’s the thing about bullying: the circle of people affected is much larger than the victim. Since we know that Sam is not bullying himself, we can safely assume that there are other children involved.

Where there are victims, there are bullies–and kids who engage in bullying are in need of intervention just as much as the kids they victimize.

According to a 2007 study by Sourander et al, bullying behavior is predictive of future substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Other research shows that simply witnessing bullying creates anxiety and depression.

As Mr. Hanson is concerned about the economy, he might consider the economic impact of allowing Sam’s bullies to continue without intervention. Shall we turn a blind eye as all children–bullies, victims, bystanders–walk the path towards increased risk of health and mental health disease? The cost to society from these conditions is far higher than the cost of teaching kids empathy and respect.

I fear that, beyond misunderstanding the harm that bullies to do themselves and to bystanders, Mr. Hanson underestimates the harm done to targeted victims. This is a common misperception.

In Bullying in North American Schools, Susan P. Limber writes:

“Some adults seriously underestimate bullying’s frequency.  (“Kids will be kids,” “It’s a normal part of growing up,” “Kids need to learn to deal with bullying on their own.”)  These adults misjudge the significant social, emotional, and academic costs of bullying for victimized children and overestimate the ability of victimized children to stop bullying without the assistance of adults.”

“Sometimes people conflict,” Mr. Hanson’s comment continues, “and there are no institutional policies that can ever solve this.”  But “conflict” implies the possibility of resolution, a possibility that doesn’t exist when one child is simply being mean to another.

Barbara Coloroso, author of the international bestseller The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander, writes:

“Too often, kids who have bullied and kids they have bullied are forced into conflict resolution workshops–but remember, bullying is not about conflict; it is about contempt.  There is no conflict to be resolved.”

Disagreements, occasional fights, and social conflicts are all normal parts of childhood. But bullying–repetitive, unwanted attacks in the context of a power imbalance–is not normative, and it cannot be lumped in with typical childhood conflict.

Mr. Hanson suggests that Sam grow a thicker skin and fight back, or, alternately, to change to become “less conspicuous.” (“If you must stand out,” he advises, “stand out on your own two feet, not being propped up by the rudimentary defenses of an overprotective mother.”)

This is a classic case of blaming the victim for the attack. In the 1970s, police officers asked rape victims, “Well, what were you wearing?” Today they would never ask such a question; the new social norm is that a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants and walk safely.

Telling Sam to stop acting so femininely and lose weight is the same thing as telling a rape victim to wear different clothes. Sam has the right to be who he is, and still walk safely through his school.

As Stan Davis, anti-bullying expert and author of Schools Where Everyone Belongs told me in an interview:

“School is the kids’ workplace. A good workplace requires people to work together. At your job, you don’t get to say, “I don’t want to work with black people or gay people.”  In a good workplace, you have to keep your unkind thoughts to yourself.  We aren’t saying they all have to be friends. But what they do need to be is collegial and supportive, even for people they won’t let in their personal life on a bet.”

Sarah is not asking people to like her son. She is, however, insisting that he be treated with respect. Respect is a basic human right, something we owe to Sam and all children.

Everything about Mr. Hanson’s approach runs counter to the goals of a respectful community.  His tone is condescending; he blames Sam for being bullied; and he makes judgmental, uneducated assumptions about Sam’s lifestyle and Sarah’s parenting.

A child should not have to hide his gender expression and physical characteristics or limitations in order to fit in.

Would Mr. Hanson tell an African-American child to lighten her skin (or a short child to use growth hormone, or a child in a wheelchair to get up and walk) so other kids wouldn’t bully them?

As long as there are adults who hold opinions like Mr. Hanson’s, it will be difficult to teach compassion to children, but change must happen at some point, so why not today?

–Carrie Goldman, 2011

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  • Should of closed with-"oh and btw you're an asshole...Mr. Hanson." Good piece-you and Sarah should be applauded for the work you guys do. Thank you.

  • What a confused man Robin Hanson is.
    Encouraging children to conform, like Mr Hanson suggests, is much riskier than encouraging them to be individuals and risking ridicule. It may be easier to ask your sons not to wear dresses to school and your daughters to leave their Star Wars water bottles at home but what happens in 10 years when conformity includes drugs and alcohol and other life impacting decisions.
    Teaching your children to embrace their differences, as well as the differences of others, when they're young will allow them to be more confident individuals when the important decisions are in front of them.
    When children are still young they are unable to resolve these problems because it is difficult for them to understand WHY it is happening so growing thicker skin is not really an option. These children are not weak for leaning on their parents, they are learning through them. If parent's won't stand up for them, who will?

  • I am saddened by Mr. Hanson or his stand-in's misguided response to Sarah Hoffman's blog post, "Tired." We all, and children in particular as they do not have the benefit of life experience, have the right to simply "be," as long as we are not physically or emotionally harming others in the process. It is ridiculous to characterize bullying as a form of conflict.

    So Carrie, when will your book be published?

  • In reply to jiyer:

    Jiyer, the book will be published in spring or summer of 2012 by Harper Collins, title as yet undetermined. I wanted to call it The Littlest Jedi but could not get the rights from LucasFilm's licensees to use the word "Jedi", so I need to come up with another title!

  • In reply to CarrieGoldman:

    I will look out for it, so my son and I can read it together! He recently "stopped" liking pink and purple...told me those are "girl's colors that are only for Nina." Apparently he now only likes blue...and he just turned 3! Where did that come from?!! Haven't been able to figure it out yet.

    Does Katie have title suggestions for your book?

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