The Burden of Being Bullied
About the Guest
Author Jonathan McKee, known years ago as "Bucky Beaver" because of his prominent overbite, knows a thing or two about bullying. McKee was bullied throughout his school years and gives wise advice on how to handle the bullies in your child's life. McKee recalls how the bullying affected him socially, even after he got his braces off, and remembers contemplating suicide. McKee talks honestly with parents about what to do if their child is being bullied.
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Author Jonathan McKee knows a thing or two about bullying. McKee was bullied throughout his school years and gives wise advice on how to handle the bullies in your child’s life.
The Burden of Being Bullied
Bob: Bullying in our day is a big deal, and Jonathan McKee says every child is affected in one way or another.
Jonathan: This isn’t just an issue affecting the kids that are being picked on or targeted every day; because there are kids, who are actually doing the picking on; and then there are those, who are standing by—and man, it is tough for these kids—because they’re in a situation, where on the one hand they’re thinking, “I’m glad it’s not me”; but on the other hand, you know, they’re kind of weighing out: “Do I say something? Do I just ignore them? What’s the right thing to do?”
Our kids are either the bully, the bullied, or the bystander. The question I ask parents all the time is, “Which one’s your kid?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, March 7th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. When was the last time you had a conversation with your son or daughter about bullying? Do you know what’s going on in their lives, in their school, among their friends? We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. Did you see Bucky Beaver’s picture, here, on the back of the book? Did you check this out?
Jonathan: That’s low, man. [Laughter]
Bob: You have a different copy!—you don’t have a picture on the back of yours.
Dave: I have no picture. I’m not up there on the—
Ann: I don’t get it. What is that?
Bob: Check that out—see, Bucky Beaver, right there. I’m not—I didn’t make that name up; did I?
Jonathan: No; it’s actually written on the back of the book.
Ann: What? Wait! What is it?
Dave: This is the name he was called. Our author today used to be known as Bucky Beaver.
Bob: And you included a picture from what age?
Jonathan: We did. That is either third or fourth grade; I can’t even remember.
Ann: I think you’re really cute.
Jonathan: Oh, thank you.
Dave: Honey, you’re not supposed to say that to another man!
Jonathan: It’s a face only a mother could love.
Dave: This is my wife! [Laughter]
Jonathan: That was the mom in her.
Ann: Yes—third grade.
Bob: The person that Ann thinks is cute is Jonathan McKee, who joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back.
Jonathan: Oh, thanks for having me.
Bob: Jonathan is an author/a speaker—speaks primarily on issues that parents are facing with teenagers; right?
Jonathan: Absolutely; yes.
Bob: You’ve written a book called The Bullying Breakthrough: Help for Parents and Teachers of the Bullied, Bystanders, and Bullies. So it’s both the bully and the bullied that you’re wanting to address and those who are watching it happen.
Jonathan: Yes; and that’s the thing—when I talk with parents today, you know, this isn’t just an issue affecting the kids that are being picked on or targeted every day—because there are kids, who are actually doing the picking on, and then there are those who are standing by—and man, it is tough for these kids, because they’re in a situation—where on the one hand, they’re thinking, “I’m glad it’s not me”; but on the other hand, you know, they’re kind of weighing out: “Do I say something? Do I just ignore them? What’s the right thing to do?”
Our kids are either the bully, the bullied, or the bystander. The question I ask parents all the time is, “Which one’s your kid?”
Bob: And “Which one were you?”
Jonathan: Yes; I was definitely the bullied—started mostly when—probably when my baby teeth had fallen out. Everything seemed fine; everything seemed normal; but when my big teeth grew in—man! They just—they never stopped! [Laughter] They just kept coming. It was a showstopper. I mean, it was one of those things where, when I walked in a room, people stared—it was not like just a small overbite. That’s why we included a picture on the back of the cover.
Ann: Wow. How old were you, Jonathan?
Jonathan: It happened, you know, just when your big teeth come in; so—
Ann: Yes; so like third grade?
Jonathan: Yes; so, I mean, I’ve heard it all. You know, it was tough. You get used to it, as a kid, but it was tough when you heard it from adults; because every once in a while, adults would say it. I had a coach—and some kids were making fun of me. I can’t even remember what I was going to say, but I was like: “Oh, yeah? Well, I can do something better than you!”—I was trying to come back with something. While I was thinking, the coach said: “What?—chew through wood?”—you know?
Jonathan: Immediately, that just put this, you know, the proverbial “Kick me” sign on my back. So yes; it was tough. The thing that I think most people don’t talk about, when you endure ridicule all the time, is that—it does something to you, socially. It changes you, because you become socially awkward. You’re skeptical of people—you think, “They’re talking about me,” or “They’re thinking this…” Even when I got my teeth fixed, I was messed up.
Jonathan: That’s why, in middle school, as I had started to get some braces and that kind of stuff, some of the kids who knew me, growing up, still called me those names/still made fun of my teeth. But those were some rough years, and I remember to the point where I remember wanting to take my own life.
Dave: Yes; I mean, here you are—it’s on the back of your book—those names. We’re almost laughing about it; but in that moment of your life, it is devastating; right? I mean, how do you get to the point where you’re ready to take your life?
Jonathan: Well, I mean, it graduated from when I was young—it would be, you know, I’d be in a grocery store; and the little kid in line behind me would be like, “Mom, what’s wrong with his teeth?”—you know, every day I heard that. But when it got to these personal, aggressive attacks—and it’s funny, because that’s the exact definition that the Center for Disease Control says about bullying—they call it these aggressive, repeated attacks. When you see that, I was like: “Oh, I know what that looks like. I know what that feels like”; because, for me—you know, you hear people say, “Ignore it.” It’s hard to ignore it when the whole class is laughing at you.
Ann: Did you share what was going on inside with anyone else?
Jonathan: No; it was embarrassing. It was embarrassing; and it was one of those things where, also, being socially awkward—like I had become—I didn’t know how to verbalize it. My parents—they definitely heard it, because they’d be in line at the grocery store with me and heard that; but by the time I was in middle school, they probably thought: “Oh, he has braces,”—you know—“It’s over.”
In eighth grade, I remember, there were these three guys who particularly were targeting me. They decided to start what they called the Kill Jon Club, and they put the initials KJC—because maybe they were strategically smart enough to think, “We better not put the words, ‘Kill Jon Club,’ on the T-shirt that they actually wore to school. I did say something—I actually said something to one of my eighth grade teachers—I said, “Man, they even made T-shirts.” She goes, “No; they didn’t.” I was like, “No, no, no; they did!” And she said: “No, no, no; they didn’t. We need to go sit down.”
There was a distrust [of authority]. I kind of thought, “Well, maybe that was just my case”; but as I was writing this book and I was interviewing people, who were also aggressively targeted like this, I started to hear the same stories and the same distrust for authority. Again and again, I heard them say, “And I didn’t tell anybody, because I knew it would only make it worse.”
That’s one of the bizarre things about this. I mean, when I went through this, as the parent with my son—you know, the first thing I did was—I went and talked to the principal. I said: “Hey, let me tell you some of the stuff that’s going on. Here’s what some of these kids said…” I wish had a video camera set up, watching this meeting; because as I said all this stuff, she sat and listened; and then she got up and she says, “Let me show you something.” She started to give me a tour of the campus; and she said, “Let me show you this.” She showed me all these posters that said, “This is a bully-free zone,” and she started showing me how safe her campus was.
The more and more people I interviewed, the more I heard the same story, which is, “I said something, and they didn’t do a thing.”
Ann: This may seem like a strange question; but if you went back to fifth grade, Jonathan, what was the self-talk in your head? What were the things you heard in your head about yourself?
Jonathan: Well, I mean, the thing I felt more than anything else—and the thing that I keep hearing from others in the same situation—is just: “I felt so alone.” I was being kind of an awkward kid and kid who kept to myself. I actually really love music. I played piano at the time, and I wrote some songs. My kids found these songs I had written, and I had kind of forgot. I actually put the lyrics to some of them in the book; but I mean, there were some—and it was just like, you know: “Alone I’m sitting, nobody caring; nobody cares about me.” You know, there’s this line about, “This life isn’t wanted; I might as well take it.” I even was—I was like, “Wow.” You know, I recalled writing those lyrics, but I kind of forgot—I just felt so alone.
Ann: When I was in the fifth grade, I was at a school social. We were outside, and there was a girl that everyone knew of—that was a bully. She was in the eighth grade; she was a bigger girl, and she was mean. I happened to walk along the side of the school, and she was punching a little second-grader. He was lying on the ground, crying.
Ann: I was with my friend, fifth-grader, and I was a gymnast. I thought I was really strong. I was so enraged that I went up to this girl and I said: “You will not pick on this boy! If you want to fight somebody, you fight me!” I thought, “I’m going to take her out!” This girl punched me in the face, and I fell down—like, almost knocked me out! I remember I started crying, and I didn’t really cry. She walked away and said: “Yes; you try that again. You try protecting somebody, because I’ll always come after you.” I felt this fear in my heart—I never shared it with one person, because of my embarrassment/my shame.
I think a lot of kids feel that—they’re embarrassed; they’re full of shame. How, as parents, do we draw that out of them? Are there questions we can ask? What’s that look like?
Jonathan: Yes; that’s a great question. First of all, I commend you for actually having the guts to stand up to someone—
Ann: —or stupidity!
Jonathan: Yes; because as a bystander, a typical reaction is, “Man, I don’t want to do anything.” But, you know, you just learned the lesson the hard way that a bully is much tougher on you than the uneven parallel bars; so—[Laughter]
Dave: I mean, that never went away with her, by the way.
Dave: She still jumps in the middle of everything! [Laughter] Most of the time, she throws people around, including me; but I mean, that is her. I tend to be the bystander.
I’m thinking back, even, through my years of either bullying people or just being the one that just stood there and watched. I read your book and I go, “Oh my gosh.” You know, you’re right; we’re one of those three: being the bully, or being the bullied, or just standing there. I thought: “Man, what does the bystander do?
Dave: “How do they step out of that? How do you make the difference?”
Ann: Well, wait. I want him, first, to go back to the parents.
Dave: Okay; let’s get in a fight about this. [Laughter] I want you to…—No; answer her first.
Jonathan: Yes; absolutely.
Ann: How do we draw that out of our kids?
Jonathan: I’m glad you asked that; because the key is so often we jump straight to the fixes; right?
Jonathan: We jump straight to, “Okay; well, here’s what we’re going to do…”—you know? But when we rush and do that, our kid just feels like, “Hey, you’re just trying to fix me.”
Jonathan: It has to start with that empathy. It has to start with that—just listening—kind of think of it, as a parent, as saying: “Okay; I’m going to make sure that, this first time that we talk about this, I’m not going to react. I’m going to put it off and try to wait until the second or third conversation before we actually start thinking about some of these fixes.”
Ann: We had a policy, especially with teenagers, that said, “No matter what they say, don’t freak out.” We’d look at each other like: “Don’t freak out!” “Don’t freak out!”
Dave: We would freak out in the other room, later—
Jonathan: That’s right.
Dave: —like: “Oh my! Are you kidding me?!”
But you’re right—in the moment, it’s like, “Just look at them; listen—
Jonathan: That’s right.
Dave: —“try to let them draw it out and talk,”—is what you’re saying; right?
Ann: And so is a good question, just bringing up the topic of bullying and: “Have you ever experienced that or seen that?”
Jonathan: It’s a great way to introduce it, because the key is dialogue here. This isn’t monologue. Dialogue takes two people, and it really should involve them talking and us listening. Most of these kids don’t feel heard.
Sadly, as moms and dads, very often, get into a situation—the first thing we want to do is we want to go and talk their ears off. Well, that doesn’t help the situation at all. [Laughter] I was the king of that—you’d think I should have known better. But we need to create these arenas, where our kids feel safe—these places where they feel noticed and heard. That could start at the dinner table with something as simple as no tech at the table—where screens aren’t there; where Dad isn’t looking at his phone because “It’s important, because work might call,”—you know. We just are in dialogue and in conversation. As we create that safe place, where kids feel like they can talk about something without Mom or Dad freaking out, then that’s going to be able to, all of a sudden, pave the way for some of these conversations.
But there definitely are some signs we can notice that might hint towards, “Hey, perhaps my kid is being picked on.”
Bob: Things like?
Jonathan: This is all about self-esteem. So much of young people being picked on is because they’re actually being picked on by somebody else, who feels worse about themselves. That definition I told you about—from the Center for Disease Control—there are three factors—you can almost look at them like checkboxes: there’s that aggressive; there’s that repeated part I talked about; but the other part is a power play. It’s these aggressive, repeated power plays; and it’s because someone doesn’t feel good about themselves; so they think, “Hey, if I can bring this other person down, it will lift me up a little higher,”—you know—“on that scale there.”
So, what ends up happening is—this is all about self-esteem all around. As our kids aren’t feeling good about themselves, this is something we can kind of look for a little bit. We might hear subtle phrases out of them, like—you know, a mom could be sitting down with her daughter and, “Hey;”—you know—“you want to wear these shorts tomorrow?” “I don’t want them because my legs look fat in those shorts,”—and then think—“Well, where did she get this?”
Now, I know there are some people that are saying, “Jonathan, how can we possibly notice low self-esteem in a world where self-esteem right now is the lowest it’s been in decades?” and they’re right; it is. Everything has changed. In the last six or seven years, literally, every expert out there is scratching their head, trying to figure out why we’re seeing unprecedented rises in depression, in teen suicide,—
Jonathan: —anxiety—you name it—across the board. In every single one of these conversations, the word, “smartphone,” comes into play; because if you think about this, six or seven years ago is when America crossed the 50 percent mark—it was 2012—for carrying these devices in our pockets. These devices are nothing but a real-time barometer of self-esteem. They tell us exactly how popular we are/how liked we are. If somebody says, “How many friends do you have?” you have to pull out your device and tell them a number; because it’s represented by a number. Because of this, we’re walking around—and no matter how popular—we could be the most popular person on campus, but we don’t look as good as Kylie Jenner, or as popular as Adam Levine, and—
Dave: I mean, it’s just comparison, comparison, comparison.
Dave: I hate it—as a preacher, I hate it; because I used to be good. [Laughter] People would come up to me and say, “You’re really good.” Now they’re like, “You’re not as good as this guy…”
Jonathan: “You’re not as good as Tim Keller.”
Jonathan: Yes; I mean, that’s the thing; and Tim is pretty good. [Laughter]
But the thing is—so we already live in this world where self-esteem is at an all-time low. But if we notice some of these subtleties—if we notice our kids making comments, they’ve heard them from somewhere—now, they might have heard them from these devices; and that’s something we probably definitely should spend some time talking about it, because it’s a huge part of cyber-bullying.
Bob: Yes; get to the question Dave was asking about the bystander; because Ann was a bystander and she intervened. If I’m with my kids and I’m saying, “You know, if you ever see bullying…” do you intervene? Do you go tell a grown-up? What’s the right response for somebody who observes bullying?
Jonathan: That’s a great question, and I think our kids feel trapped; because, you know, they feel like: “Well, what am I going to do? If I do this, I could be the next one being targeted.” This is why it’s so important for us—as parents, and teachers, and as caring adults—to have conversations with our kids about this stuff; because a lot of our kids are bystanders, and they don’t know what to do. If we dialogue about what this can look like—and believe it or not—we can go to Scripture and talk about this. This is Philippians 2, you know, considering others better than ourselves—you know, not looking at our own interests, but the interests of others.
When we see Christ, who modeled this more than anyone else, some of the best things we can do is do what Jesus did—where, when Jesus walked into a town and everybody looked at some short guy in a tree, and literally it’s like his political consultants were like: “Jesus, that guy up there? You don’t want to dialogue with him, because he’s quite unpopular right now. He’s actually ripped off every single person in the audience here; so whatever You do, don’t dialogue with him.” That’s when Jesus said: “Hey, Zach; let’s do lunch!—yes? Can we do lunch?” He sat down with this guy, who everybody hated; and we don’t even get to hear what He talked about. All we know is—when He meets with this guy and just hangs out with this guy for lunch, next thing that happens is this guy goes: “Man, I messed up. I have to change. I’m going to repay everybody. I’m…” So Jesus, just sitting with this guy—
If we can talk with our kids constantly about what it means to not just look after our own interests—and by the way, we’re really good at that. As a matter of fact, I work with middle-school kids. Whenever you’re walking to the car with middle-school kids—I love it—because whenever the car’s in sight, middle-school kids instinctively will yell, “Shotgun!”—right? That’s the thing they yell.
Jonathan: Well, you’ve never heard a middle-school kid say, “Shotgun for you,”—you know? I mean, they just don’t think about this; you know? [Laughter] This is one of those things where, all of a sudden, we can talk with our kids about thinking about what it means and what it looks like to actually consider someone else better than ourselves.
Dave: And then taking the next step, because it’s a mindset—Philippians 2: “others more important than me”; Jesus’ mindset modeled that for us—and yet, we talk all the time about a real man—one of the pillars of manhood, and I think it’s womanhood as well—is: “Reject passivity.”
It’s so easy, as a bystander in any situation, to be passive/to just stand there. Yet—I’ve tried to instill this in my sons—I want to be that man that says: “Wait, wait, wait. I’m going to be the guy that defends the helpless/that defends the one getting bullied”; and yet, you’re standing there.
Ann: —or even look for them.
Ann: I was thinking, too, it’s almost keeping an eye on the world around you to notice who’s not being noticed/who’s sitting alone. I think that is hard with middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, because they’re looking at themselves.
Bob: Well, and here’s where I wish—we didn’t do this—but I wish, as a parent, I had been more proactive.
Ann: Me too.
Bob: Rather than waiting for it to happen, I wish I’d sat down with my kids, before they went to school for the first time—whether that’s kindergarten or if you homeschool them for a few years and then you put them in—just know that the school environment is going to be an environment that’s going to invite ridicule as kids try to jockey for who’s popular and who fits where.
I wish I’d sat down and said: “Look, you can expect this. This will likely happen to you or your friends, and here’s why it’s happening: because there are kids, who feel bad about themselves and they’re trying to make themselves feel better,” and “Here’s how you can respond when it does happen,” and “Here’s how you can respond when it’s happening to somebody else.” Coach and be proactive; so that, when it happens to a kid, they go, “Dad told me this was going to happen.”
Jonathan: Yes; it’s almost like you’re giving them eyes as they walk into the school, like: “I should be looking for this. This is the heart of God.”
The funny thing is—I say that about our kids. I’m thinking we should do the same thing—
Dave: “Everywhere we go, our eyes should be like, ‘Where is God sending me to be a person that can help someone that’s getting bullied in whatever way?’ That is my call, as a follower of Christ; I want to stand up and defend.”
Bob: Strategies like we’re talking about here are what you have for us in the book, The Bullying Breakthrough, which is a book that we have in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com to get your copy; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY for more information. Again, the book is called The Bullying Breakthrough: Real Help for Parents and Teachers of the Bullied, the Bystanders, and the Bullies. It’s written by our guest, Jonathan McKee. Order from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY—that’s 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, before we’re all done here today, the President of FamilyLife, David Robbins, is here with us with some thoughts on bullying; right, David?
David: Yes; as a parent of teenagers and pre-teens, if you’re like me at all—I’m thinking about my kids! Stepping into this feels vital and urgent, while also a little scary. I’m wondering, “Have I had enough conversations?” I try to have open dialogues; but yet, I think there is more that I can do.
What I’ve heard today, again and again—the importance for our kids—and really, all of us are asking these questions—is them knowing, and they’re asking the questions themselves: “Am I really known?” and “Am I really cared for?” They want someone to lovingly connect with them. Those questions are continually answered by Jesus having taken on flesh and coming down to this earth. We are not alone. He knows our experiences as intimately as we know them ourselves, and He carries and cares for the burdens that we have. Here’s what we must remember—Jesus says we’re not alone; we are not abandoned. We have a friend that sticks closer than a brother.
The action point for me today, as a dad, is to go talk to my 12-year-old and ask him, “Are you experiencing any of these things?” It’s taking Jonathan’s advice to start a dialogue around some of the articles that are on his website—to have that third-person voice in the conversation.
Bob: Well, again, we have a link to those articles on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com.
And tomorrow, we’re going to talk about cyber-bullying with Jonathan McKee. I hope our listeners can join us back for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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