As a child I was bullied mercilessly at the small Catholic school I attended and fought almost daily. I won a few and lost a lot. I would get migraines from the stress of having to face another day of torture. The nuns at the school couldn’t fathom that so many of the boys in my class would want to torment me on such a regular basis and therefore assumed that it had to be my provocation that led to so many beatings. This despite the fact that I was routinely the smallest in my class, wore union glasses and had a penchant for eating raw corn on the cob for snack time. Yep, I should have been the most popular boy at school.
For all my torment, and the torment of my other nerdy friends, neither suicide nor the murder of our tormentors was ever a topic of conversation.
I was roughly two years old when Etan Patz disappeared, making me a member of what I believe was the last generation of truly independent children. Even while growing up in the Bronx during the crack epidemic and the violence that ensued, the children on my block were encouraged (and sometimes forced) to play outside. We played classic street games like freeze tag, Red Rover, and taps, and invented some of our own, such as Hot Peas and Butter. In the summers, my friends and I would venture the mile or so walk to the local elementary school for free lunch. No one looked for us as long as we got home before the street lights came on. Etan was still an aberration even as missing children began to appear on milk cartons.
In the course of it all, we fell down, we fought, we bled. I still carry the scars of my youth like badges of prepubescent courage: the two circular scars on my knee from my first real tumble off my bike and the almost invisible scar just under my lip from being impaled on a chain-link fence in the backyard (my mother had to pick me up and ever so carefully slide my lip off the fence). There was no hospital visit.
There was a toughness that came with a childhood that sadly no longer exists.
How does one become independent when unstructured playtime has become a thing of the past? How do children learn skills like social coping and problem-solving? What happens when your first bit of anguish and pain comes from a tweet or Facebook post? What happens is, children, die. More accurately, they kill themselves. The torture of social rejection becomes too much for them to handle. And what do we tell them? We tell them it gets better. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.
As a child, I was beaten by bullies, robbed by bullies, humiliated by bullies. I learned to fight back — sometimes physically, sometimes with words, and occasionally with pranks. Do I advocate violence among children? No — no more than I advocate violence anywhere. I do advocate wit and resiliency. I advocate teaching a generation of vulnerable children what it means to stand up for themselves. When the idea of facing an online bully one more time is less inviting to a child than ending their young lives, what does that say about the world we have created?
We have a generation of fragile children in an un-fragile world. We have created a falsehood for our children where everyone is a winner and we all get trophies. A world where there will always be a grown-up ready to come to the rescue. What you learned about the world at age six, our children are learning at 16, when the stakes can be far too high.
Let’s teach our children that for every loss there is a new game to play. That sometimes the only one who can save them is themselves. If you want to save our children, let them fall early and show them how to stand back up proudly. Start with a game of Hot Peas and Butter. It explains how the world works quite succinctly.