I understand that what I am about to say is going to irritate some people, and will go against mainstream “anti-bullying” teachings. But I feel it needs to be said. The way we are teaching parents, kids, families and our kid’s leaders to respond to bullying is not Biblical and it is not working. It’s time to have some better conversations about bullying.

“Bullying” is something I understand well, from personal experience. As the smallest kid in my class, with my “coke-bottle” glasses, and poor out of date clothing (parents were pastoring a small country church), I was often the object of teasing, name calling and pranks. It didn’t help that I was a Christian or that I was usually ahead on my work. And I’m sure that MY reaction wasn’t the best every time either – I’m a scrapper, so, small as I was, I usually lot my temper and responded with one whopping fight, which couldn’t have helped my Christian witness…..But I got through it, with the help of my church, my awesome Christian friends, and especially my PARENTS. These days I like going into public schools and talking about bullying, and how we should respond to it. As a children’s pastor, I see the results of children being bullied, and it breaks my heart.  I have given a lot of thought as to what my parents did RIGHT when one of their children was being bullied, and what I see going so wrong in these situations. How should parents respond when their child tells them they are being bullied? How should a school teacher react? A children’s church leader?  It may not be what you think…..

Here are ways that adults respond when a child reports that they are being bullied that are absolutely awful:

Child: This kid is so mean to me. Every day they keep hitting me and calling me names. I keep crying, and I don’t want to go to school anymore.

Adult: “Well, that’s a part of growing up. HAHA. That happened to me in school too. Yup it happens.”

What the child heard: “The abuse that is happening to you is not really a big deal. Everyone goes through it.  It doesn’t bother me that you are being abused and it shouldn’t bother you either. It will just go away. You being teased, hit, hurt and rejected does not concern me much. It is going to keep happening, but you probably should not talk to me about it, because I do not want to hear it. In fact, I laugh because, like your abusers, I find your abuse kind of funny.”

Adult: “God said to turn the other cheek and forgive. So stop giving in to hate and get over it. Just forgive and forget.”

What the child heard: God does not care that I am being hurt. I am wrong in this for feeling angry and hurt. If I’m “normal” I’ll be instantly “over it” and never think of it again. God says I am supposed to take abuse, and if I speak up, or have feelings about it, I’m wrong. It should be so easy to just get over it, because it was all so small anyway.

Adult: “There are always two sides. And I didn’t see what happened. Both of you say sorry to each other, hug and make up. Next time work it out between the two of you and don’t bug me with it.”

What the child heard: I don’t totally trust you, and you may be lying. Also, you getting abused must be partially your fault. Both of you say sorry, and immediately get over it. I will make you hug the person who hurts you. I will tell the other person that you told on them, and then leave you unprotected at that person’s mercy. Your problem was just a little kid problem, a little kid argument that does not mean much to me.  You are irritating me, taking up my time and I need to get this over with. I am not a safe person to come to with this. Also, you are totally and completely on your own. It is you versus this person. No one is coming to help you or set this right. No one is there to protect you, defend you or stop the abuse. You have to fend for yourself-but you still can’t fight back or you’ll be in trouble. All adults in your life, and even God, have left you to get tortured, abused and beaten day after day. Later in life, this may lead to living with abusive marriages, job situations and “friendships” because you believe you are not worth anything. Being a good Christian means being a total milk toast doormat.

So if these most frequent adult responses to bullying are not quite appropriate, then how should the parent, teacher, and church leader respond when a child tells you they are being bullied? Well, for starters….let’s call bullying what it is – it’s abuse.  Emotional, physical and mental abuse, that is occurring on a regular basis in this child’s life. Calling it “bullying” can be an excuse for a dismissive attitude “kids will be kids!”. Abuse should never be condoned or allowed to go on – especially when Christians are involved! We need to look at the WHOLE of Scripture – yes, we are to turn the other cheek and forgive and show the love of Christ…..BUT you cannot dismiss the rest of the Bible.  Paul, when he was about to be beaten for something he didn’t do, invoked his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22). Paul also had a habit of calling people on the carpet for their bad behavior, both Christians and non-Christians. When a slave runs away to Paul for help, Paul gets involves and pleads for the young man (book of Philemon). When Jesus is illegally arrested and abused, He never says, “Oh that’s Ok. No problem.” No, He forgives them, yes.  But He also calls them out on their bad behavior. (John 18:23)  He lets them know none of what they are doing is ok. Human nature is fallen and broken, and that is why, we will always have “bullies” who will prey on the younger, the weaker, the quieter and the different. Part of our calling is to stand up for the weak (Isaiah 61) – “a broken reed He will not break”. Look around – those broken ones are all around us.  And what about the bullies?? They also need a balance.  They need grace (because they are broken  too), and the love of Jesus. And they need to know it isn’t right for THEM to be abused either. But they also desperately need to be told that they are worth being told NO, being given limits, and a different way to handle their feelings. If you really love a child who is acting like a bully, you will intervene before they end up wrecking their lives in selfishness, violence and emptiness. Jesus loves the abused and the abuser – and change starts when someone steps into the situation. So….would you like to see how these conversations could go better? How about this:

Child: This kid is so mean to me. Every day they keep hitting me and calling me names. I keep crying, and I don’t want to go to school anymore.

Adult: I am so sorry to hear that. That should not be happening. It is not ok that you are getting hit. I care about you.  And God cares about you.  God would never be ok with you being hit and hurt. Tell me more.  Why do you think this person is doing this? Who are they? Let’s pray for them right now. We also need to tell your parents right away, and your teacher, church leader.  We will work together to stop this from happening, because we want you to be safe.  Thank you for telling me. This is not your fault. Nobody deserves to be abused. You should ALWAYS tell an adult when someone threatens you, destroys your property, teases you or hits you. It is not ok for them to be doing that. We adults are not perfect, and sometimes we forget to listen well. So if one adult does not listen, then tell another adult, and another and another until one of us listens to you. It’s best for the person hitting you to get help too to stop what they are doing. But you shouldn’t have to be afraid to go to school.

Let’s face this together – you do not have to act out in anger or desperation.

I’m here and you are not alone.