"Can I see your friendship band?"
It was an innocent question from a petite 8 year-old to a classmate who was a year older but built more generously. In response, the other girl came forward, put both her hands on the chest of the shorter girl, and pushed her so hard that she was flung forcefully under a study table. That child is mine, a friendly but shy girl who didn't tell any of us at home about this incident immediately. It was only when the wrist-twisting became almost unbearable and routine (as soon as the teacher stepped out of the class) that she opened up.
Maybe the provocation was that she was a new entry into the badminton team of which the older girl had been the undisputed champion. Or it was simply that my girl was physically tiny, for which she had also been bullied previously in the school bus and once handed a note by another trouble-maker with the warning, 'The fight is on". My daughter had been challenged to turn up at the local park so that the two girls could physically come to a conclusion. In both these instances, the mothers of the girls refused to believe that their child could do any wrong and dismissed outright my suggestion that having a word with their daughters could do no harm.
Today, in Indian schools, pre-teens are swiping left our conventional thinking about them. "You are lucky you don't have two boys" is a line I have heard often enough from parents cribbing about the destruction of their house when their sons are home. As a mother to two girls, I like to believe that with boys, you get what you see - loud decibels and couch potatoes addicted to the latest gadget. Girls, on the other hand, have never been more complex. The urgency to belong, to be one of the popular girls in school, over-rides everything else. No one quite knows what they are thinking; many times even their parents are clueless which makes their upbringing tougher. A 13-year-old child at an elite Delhi school who has relentlessly been bullied by a well- connected student recently confided to her mother, "I am being hounded to jump off from the balcony".
If her mother hears about Rosalie Avila, she will get goose bumps. The teenager studying in a middle school in California was the same age as the Delhi girl when she killed herself last month. In a note that Rosalie left, she called herself ugly and a loser, focusing on how we undermine the importance of fragile egos. Her parents were aware that Rosalie was being bullied, but could never have imagined that it was life-threatening. For this generation, there is no perfection in being imperfect. You are either the prom queen or a nobody.
The transition from innocent princess to a tween desperate to be an adult is so drastic that many parents are out of their depth -and this is sometimes because of their own follies. How do you allow 6-year-olds to get their hair blow-dried for their birthday party? I have even seen girls as young as that taken to be pampered at a salon as part of a birthday party theme. The compulsion to raise divas instead of the child-next-door is turning out to be our own downfall.
Girls who gain height later or don't have a fair skin that we Indians have built a halo around are the ones that are most often targeted. A friend's very talented daughter has often been teased because she is short; none of her peers seem to care that she is brilliant in gymnastics and athletics. Her mother tries to help her by countering, "Some are short and some are too tall or with a big head". Most days, the 8-year-old is happy in her space, but she is still a child and there are days when she comes crying off the school bus.
Those tears are because of the fickle lot that we are raising prefer the superfluous, and for them, even normal is geek and needs to be bullied. Their groundwork has been laid by parents who prefer to spare the rod and amply spoil their child not realising that very soon it will be difficult to undo the damage.
Thankfully, there are a few moms who believe in tough love and are not willing to let their children become monsters, like a friend who went straight to school once she realized that her own 9- year-old girl was bullying other kids. But cases like these are few and far between. Either the parents live in denial about the behaviour of their child or the school prefers to brush it under the carpet, not willing to draw any unnecessary attention.
Counsellors insist that there is always a trigger for a child to become a bully and there are chances that she herself was once a victim. But not always. One girl I know simply bullied because she wanted to be admired by other popular girls and was desperate to become part of their gang. With unrestricted access to social media and YouTube from a very young age, girls learn to set their own rules. Any attempt at taking corrective measures later becomes counter-productive since they only know digital parenting and have long forgotten what it is to listen to an elder. The latent anger at being questioned is taken out on anyone who is not their size until it becomes a habit that gives them pleasure.
As the world shrinks, bullying too has gone beyond classrooms. Cyber-bullying is as scary as physical bullying, if not more, because it can shatter with one comment that is viewed by so many. Teenagers on Facebook and Instagram are obsessed with how many 'likes' they get and one negative comment can seriously play with their minds. Fake profiles are being created by bullies to target other girls who now battle depression and anxiety barely into their teenage years. Waiting to take advantage of this vulnerability are online predators like the one who chatted and then convinced a Class 9 student of a well-known Delhi school to send him her nude pictures. It didn't take him long to blackmail her and then send those pictures to her entire friend list. The girl has now dropped out of school.
In all this, boys sometimes stop being bystanders and their own behaviour turns deviant. In a reputed Delhi school, bullying among girls increased after two branches were merged recently. The boys came to the rescue of the girls who were being tormented but only in return for some favours that far belied their age.
Our parents never tired of drilling into us the old saying that "If someone hits you on one cheek, give him the other also". But the goalposts have shifted since our carefree days and it will not be fair on my children if that is all the advice I give them today. Some may question if what we are teaching them is correct, but at this point ,as parents it seems to us the right thing. So my husband and I repeatedly now tell our girls, don't come back home crying if someone hits you, hit them back and hit them harder.
(Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava worked with NDTV for more than a decade and now writes on a variety of topics for several news organisations.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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