No one likes being bullied. It’s not something we search for in our social circles. It’s usually something thrust upon us. To be bullied is to feel isolated, powerless, and worthless. There is an inherent rejection in the very act of it. The words fracture a person’s entire identity. It etches away pieces of a person until they are only a husk. They feel like a pariah. It takes a lifetime to fix the damage.
IKEA made news this week for their social experiment to raise awareness on the issue. They put two plants on their store room floor. The first suffered bullying, verbal abuse. The second was encouraged. The results are what one would expect, the bullied plant was wilted, and the encouraged plant was gorgeous. The only surprising thing is that plants responded to human tone of voice alone. They don’t have the ability to discern words. Read about it here.
I wrote The Husband in response to a lifetime of rejection. When I started the project I thought that I would be sorting through how terrible my fellow students were to me as a child. As the manuscript took on a life of its own, I found the biggest bullies in my childhood were adults. It makes sense. They were the ones charged to protect me. My gym teacher was the one that always reminded me I was fat. My art teacher told me I was a horrible little boy. Countless teachers told me I would never amount to anything. Those were the voices that continued to resonate. Then there were the times they didn’t have to say a word. Their look alone was enough to destroy me.
I can remember adults telling me to essentially grow a pair. A real man could stand up to the bullies. I did. I beat up the bullies. This only fueled the hatred of the adults who influenced my identity. There was nothing I could do to defend myself except take the hate. I grew up wilted. The repercussions of this has me paying more for therapists than I’d like to admit.
The problem isn’t that children don’t know bullying sucks, they do. The problem is that as adults, we aren’t comforting and encouraging children. It takes a village to raise a child. I love the fact that we have students talking about bullying. Maybe they’ll grow up to love the disenfranchised child. However, if we want real change, it comes from us grownups.
I don’t know who IKEA was targeting for their experiment. The truth is we can’t combat every negative thing a child could endure. The lesson of these plants should not be on how bad bullying is but how powerful encouragement can be. We have to be the adults in a child’s life that provide comfort, safety, and belonging. The issue of bullying will never be solved until adults learn how to love the least of these. In this case, that fat kid, the awful boy, and the one that may not amount to anything. Be the force of encouragement. Give a reason for a child to be like the healthy plant and reach for the sunshine. Help them find an identity worth achieving.
Aaron Daniel Behr
Mount Vernon, Ohio
May 11, 2018