How Do Kids Become Bullies?

An eighth-grade girl in my town, 13-year-old Alye Pollack, recently released an anti-bullying video on YouTube—called “Words are Worse than Sticks and Stones”–that has gotten over 200,000 hits.

Everyone wonders how young people learn to be such bullies, and I’m going suggest one way.  Bullying is now de rigeur among older people, and it appears everywhere in the media. Just listen to this note from New York Magazine, asking me to renew my subscription. Keep in mind that I don’t owe them a dime—this is a request, not an invoice.  It begins with a faux “Office of the Controller” letterhead.

DALMA HEYN,

TO DATE YOU HAVE DISREGARDED ALL PREVIOUS NOTICES ABOUT YOUR DELINQUENT ACCOUNT. I HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO REFER YOUR ACCOUNT TO A COLLECTION AGENCY. IN ADDITION, BE ADVISED THAT YOUR CREDIT ORDERS MAY NO LONGER BE ACCEPTED BY THIS COMPANY OR ITS AFFILIATES.

THIS IS THE LAST TIME I CAN WRITE YOU ABOUT YOUR PAST DUE ACCOUNT. SEND ME PROOF OF PAYMENT OR REMIT YOUR BALANCE TODAY.

It’s signed by no one, but in the signature space gives the New York Magazine subscription department address in the hope that I’m idiotic enough to think I haven’t paid something and that I’m in big, big trouble.

Who decided on such a ridiculous and hostile technique to win subscribers? Who decided Yes! Let’s go beyond exclamation (This is your last issue!) and beyond enthusiastic encouragement (You won’t want to miss all the fun of the upcoming issues!) and instead pretend to be an authority about to send potential subscribers to the pokey if they don’t cough up the eleven bucks? Does New York Magazine think I believe this pink slip (yes, really) is from the “Office of the Controller” or that I don’t know what I’ve paid or not paid?  Who agreed that instead of politely asking potential subscribers to renew, it’s a great idea to demand their money as rudely as possible?

A bully, that’s who. I know these words are hardly the “worse than sticks and stones” bullying that middle-schoolers like Alye Pollack are reeling from. But I’m reeling from these, and I’m an adult.  It is bullying, clear and simple. Emotional bullying. The subscription department is threatening and mean, whether we give a damn about their words or not. The flavor of this meanness is all around us, permeating the homes of our middle-school kids. If this is just a meaningless subscription notice, think of what they feel when the hostile words come from a source that matters; when the words mean something. This is the approach, these are the words, that we’re telling children to get used to. So why wouldn’t they use the same hostile, threatening, off-the-wall words on each other?

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