Teen Bullies: Can We Ever Forgive Them?

04/11/2014 09:32 am ET | Updated 5 days ago
Henry King via Getty Images

By Lisa Keating | The Next Family

Early this week, I challenged another writer, Tony Posnanski, on his notion that bullies are weak-minded and unable to change. “Bullies are weak-minded people. Kid bullies have weak-minded parents who were bullies once as well. They prey on those who have a weakness — or a visible one.”

I re-read Tony’s article six times to make sure I was reading it correctly. If this is true, then I would be a weak-minded parent and my son, Morgan, would be a weak-minded nine year old bully. Our fates predetermined with no possibility for change, awareness or emotional growth. Through that perspective, I would still be bullying my little brother or anyone else I deemed inferior or weak.

Growing up, I degraded, dominated, humiliated, and shamed my baby brother non-stop. We fought constantly. Our mom had no idea how to make it stop or fix it, she wasn’t taught skills to help us. Based on Tony’s theory, does that mean my mom was weak-minded because her daughter was a mean big sister? Or was she a single mom, working full-time, with an ex-husband that abandoned his kids and responsibilities, barely keeping it together one day at a time? My point being, accusing an entire group of kids and adults to the fate of being weak-minded blocks any possible progress in conversation and action.

I commend Tony for defending Grayson Bruce, and by proxy Morgan, and removing gender barriers for kids. Girls are allowed to cross gender lines without comment or questioning, thanks to the feminist movement. I myself played in the dirt, collected bugs, wore over-alls, played baseball, and climbed trees as a child. The feminist movement gave me permission to be both feminine and masculine. And to Tony’s greater point, it’s time boys are given the same permission.

What I cannot accept is that people can’t or won’t change. In the past ten years, this country has been flipped upside down in the fight for marriage equality. Awareness and acceptance continues to sky rocket. By the time Morgan is an adult this will be old news in the same way interracial marriage was for my generation and segregation was for the generation before me. Culture and climate changed at grassroots levels. Brave and courageous people stood up, spoke out and demanded something better. We are in the middle of a movement for equality not just for adults but for kids, too.

Morgan has confronted numerous kids, with the help of teachers, who were harassing him because of what he wore to school, hair, shoes, accessories, activities and interests. Through the power of a conversation, what seemed different, weird or wrong became understandable and even relatable to other students. The kids I work with have made profound changes in how they treat one another, have better skills to recognize and read body language and have taken responsibility for the climate and culture of their school. So don’t tell me a bully can’t change.

Morgan was appalled by this concept and said, “That’s wrong. By saying “kid bullies are weak-minded” the author is being a bully. What if the bully is struggling? Maybe they’re having a hard time at home.” Might I add this is coming from a nine year old?

The greatest lesson on forgiveness and empathy I learned was from Azim Khamisa, whose entire life changed due to a random act of gun violence. On Jan. 21, 1995, Azim’s son Tariq, a 20-year old college student, was killed at point-blank range by a young 14-year old named Tony Hicks. Tony, hanging with other gang members, who had lured “the pizza man” to a false address intending to rob him of two pizzas. Tariq refused to hand over the pizzas, and was shot and killed before he could drive away from his attackers. Instead of subscribing to the idea of Tony being weak-minded, Azim recognized that he was a victim like his son, Tariq. As a result, Mr. Khamisa, along with Tony’s grandfather, Plex Felix, began The Tariq Khamisa Foundation. On their path to healing, they found forgiveness together.

I had the fortune of seeing Azim Bardo speak at a seminar two years ago. Listening to Mr. Khamisa recount the death of Tariq brought me to tears. He said, “Given the blessings of forgiveness, I reached the conclusion that there were victims at both ends of the gun.”

Could I ever forgive someone for killing Morgan? How would I ever recover from such a loss? Would I have the courage? As a mother, working with the kids who have harassed, bullied and intimidated Morgan has been a challenge and tests my commitment to creating future allies and leaders. Let alone to do it with the same depths as Mr. Khamisa.

Because of Azim Khamisa, I look at bullying differently. There is pain at both ends of the spectrum. What kind of society are we going to be; one that condemns the aggressor with narrow absolutes and no path out, like Tony Posnanski suggests? Or do we tap into empathy and compassion? Clearly, what we are doing isn’t working. It’s time to take a new path; a path where kids like Tariq Khasima, Tony Hicks, Grayson Bruce, and Morgan Keating thrive.

Lisa Keating lives in Seattle and writes for The Next Family. Lisa is the mother of a gender non-conforming boy who has inspired her to explore gender expression and identity. She has created a site on this topic called My Purple Umbrella.

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