Greetings Everyday Spy,
Three years after leaving CIA, my (growing) family of three had settled into a comfortable life in southern Florida.
My wife and I were working for a Fortune 10 company. We lived near family and enjoyed time with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. My son, Sina, spent his weekends digging holes and flying kites on the white sand beaches of Florida’s gulf coast.
Sina was enrolled in a day school at the time.
He had been there for almost 2 years. My wife Jihi and I were friends with many of the parents and school staff. But the reason we had friends wasn’t because of us, it was because of Sina.
My son is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and his reputation at the day school was the same.
He was polite to teachers and respectful of other children. He found instinctual pleasure in sharing (totally freakish, I know) and had an infectious imagination for fun, zany games.
He was excited to go to school every morning, happy to see us every afternoon, and told everybody he met creative stories in fragmented 3-year-old English and Spanish.
Sina was happy and he made everyone in the house happy. Until something changed…
A new student was enrolled in his day school – the four year old grandson of a school administrator.
The new student was a bully.
A bully exactly like you and I know from our childhood. This kid hit and kicked other kids. He pushed them, called them names, took their toys.
The school staff told us that even though the new student was four, he would stay in the classroom with the three-year-old children. There wasn’t space for a new student in the four-year-old classroom.
The school thanked us for our patience.
But I was not offering patience.
I immediately called a meeting with my son’s teacher to share my concerns. Sina was telling my wife and I things that set off warning bells – kids getting hurt, things going missing, inappropriate language, physical threats, and teachers spending all their time managing one student.
When I met with the teacher, she confirmed Sina’s stories. She apologized for the inconvenience and assured us the student would be moved as soon as there was space for him in the older classroom.
But nothing changed; the boy kept bullying. And the bullying got worse.
We found out that boy was coming from a broken home. His grandmother worked for the school and was now his primary caregiver. He had no physical or mental issues, but he showed even worse behavior with kids his own age.
So the school decided to keep him in Sina’s class. No matter how much parents complained, he was not moved. And when our children turned four and moved to the new class, he would be going with them.
My son was a favorite target for the bully.
First it was teasing him because of his name…
Then it was tripping him when he walked…
Then it was taking toys, ruining artwork, and even trowing away my son’s food during snack time and lunch.
And it wasn’t long before Sina started to change.
He stopped wanting to go to school.
He lost his excitement for games, art, and friends.
He would wake up sad, cry when we dropped him off in his classroom, and hug us tight when we picked him up.
This bully wasn’t just bullying my son. He was bullying my whole family.
53% of Americans experience bullying in school.
- 160,000 children a year stay home because they fear a school bully.
- 23% of girls are bullied; 19% of boys are bullied.
- 52% of school bullying never gets reported to an adult.
- Cyber-bullying doubled from 2017-2018.
- Victims of bullying are 9 times more likely to commit suicide than non-victims.
The American CDC (Centers for Disease Control) have labeled bullying a major public health risk.
Victims of bullying suffer from long-term mental and physical health issues including anxiety, migraines, insomnia, stomach ulcers, and depression.
Contrary to popular opinion, bullies enjoy being bullies.
Multiple studies have shown that school bullies gain social status, large peer networks, and increased influence because of bullying. Studies conducted in public and private middle schools show positive correlations between ‘aggression’ and ‘coolness.’ Students befriend bullies that ‘start fights’ or ‘spread nasty rumors’ because they see the bullies as protectors and peer leaders.
Even more humbling, social experiments conducted on adults also show that bullies come out ahead.
Adults reward bullying in the workplace the same way children reward bullying in school. Aggressive adults make more money, have higher self-esteem, and even experience fewer heart-related issues. They are still seen as bullies by their coworkers, but their behavior actually benefits them professionally.
Which is why bullying is so hard to stop.
But my wife and I were not going to accept bullying against our son.
We spent a decade fighting bullies around the world with CIA.
We faced off with drug lords, generals, dictators and secret police. And we won every time.
Sina was only 3 years old, but if he was old enough to be bullied…
He was old enough to fight back.
This is how we trained him:
- Targets vs. Victims
Bullies need victims.
Bullies benefit from causing fear and showing others that they have the power to create fear. And victims are fearful.
Targets are not the same thing as victims. To a bully, everyone is a possible target. But what bullies want are targets that turn into victims.
Targets are different than victims because targets do not react with fear.
They are not affected by a bully’s actions. And because they do not react, they never become victims.
Consider a cardboard target at a shooting range. When you fire at the target, its difficult to know whether you hit it or not because it does not react. In comparison, when a hunter shoots at a living animal they get immediate feedback when they hit it. They can hear the animal’s pain, watch it limp, or see it drop. They have a victim.
Targets do not benefit a bully because they do not make the bully look strong.
A target’s lack of fear undermines the bully’s power and influence. Every time a bully gets ignored, they lose. They know that, so they focus their efforts on victims.
We taught Sina to see himself as a target instead of a victim.
He did not have to be afraid of the bully. He had the power to tell the bully, ‘no’ or ‘stop that’ or ‘leave me alone’. And if the bully didn’t listen, Sina had the power to walk away; to ignore the bully; or to simply not react.
Once Sina realized he had the power to choose his reaction, he stopped being afraid.
- Defining Value
14% of people admit to bullying others at some point in their youth.
They bully others because they want the benefits of being a bully.
They want the attention, the power, and the status. They see it as value.
When we taught Sina the difference between a victim and a target, we also needed to teach him to understand his personal value. He needed to understand his value so that he could stay strong when he was targeted by the bully. If Sina didn’t define his own value, the bully would define it for him.
And that would turn my son into a victim.
So we talked to Sina about his value as a person.
We did it during playtime; during bath time; during book time and bedtime.
We talked to him about how we loved his imagination and asked him to tell us funny new stories. We told him he was kind and asked him why he liked being nice to others. We told him he was strong and fast and asked him how he would use his strength and speed to help others.
His energy and excitement were the first things to come back.
Then came his imagination, his storytelling, and his laughter. He knew he was valuable to us. He knew he was valuable to others.
And the more he valued himself, he less he valued the bully.
- Peer Power
57% of bullying events are ended by groups of children.
Teachers can’t stop bullies. Principles can’t save the day. Parents, police officers, and preachers have no power over bullying.
But other children do.
Groups of people have universal power.
They have the power to start revolutions, topple dictators, and shape world events. Civil rights, women’s suffrage, and even American independence all started with groups of people taking action together.
Being a bully is a lonely gig.
It has its perks, but it also has its downsides; nobody trusts you, other bullies see you as a threat, and you are extremely vulnerable to groups. When a group turns on a bully, the bully loses everything. And when victims see a bully lose, they fear the bully less.
Victims start to turn into targets, and bullies get beat back.
Sina’s training had an immediate impact.
The 4 year old bully kept calling Sina names, hitting him, and taking his food. But Sina stopped reacting with fear. Instead, he just turned and walked away.
I was picking Sina up from school one day and watched the bully approach him on the playground.
Sina was playing in a large sandbox with a few other students. The bully came over and snatched the shovel Sina was using. Sina looked at the stolen shovel, then up at the bully. Then he looked around and grabbed a new shovel and started digging with it.
The bully snatched the second shovel from Sina, standing over my son with a fat grin and two shovels.
Sina stayed calm, stood up, and walked out of the sandbox toward a different part of the playground. The bully followed him, pushing Sina from the back and taunting him. But Sina just ignored him.
And then an image popped into my mind…
An old cartoon where a little yapping dog jumped side to side around a big bulldog. The little dog talked fast while he jumped back-and-forth around the strong, silent bulldog. The cartoon was always funny because the little yapping dog seemed so powerless.
Just like Sina’s bully.
Like your child’s bully, too.
Author: Andrew Bustamante, Founder of www.EverydaySpy.com. Andrew is a former covert CIA Intelligence officer, decorated US Air Force Combat Veteran, and respected Fortune 500 senior advisor. Learn more from Andrew on his Podcast (The Everyday Espionage Podcast) and by following @EverydaySpy on your favorite social media platform.