By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
When I was growing up, we went to my grandparents’ little house in the country every Sunday for lunch. After lunch, I’d wander outside to visit the cats my grandmother and her sister fed scraps to after a meal. The cats congregated around a small shed in the backyard and meowed loudly when they saw someone coming out the back door holding the scrap bucket.
One Sunday, there were four or five new mouths to feed, and I was delighted to see that kittens had wandered up looking for food. I reached down to pet one, and it turned on me instantly, scratching and hissing with its fur standing on end along its arched spine and its teeth bared.
“Be careful!” my aunt said, as she poured out the scraps of food. “Those kittens are wild. They could hurt you.”
“What made them wild?” I asked. I’d grown up around kittens my whole life, and the only ones I knew were soft and sweet – the kind you see on wall posters and greeting cards.
“If no one ever handles them as they grow up, they’re wild,” she said. “You’ve got to love on ‘em if you want ‘em to be tame.”
It has been a couple of decades since that day, but I never forgot how unsettling it was to see kittens that looked so sweet and innocent on the outside act so violent and impulsive. I remembered them again today after reading about the seven kids who recently beat up a 13-year-old boy named Nadin in a suburb of Philadelphia. They kicked him, punched him, stuffed him upside down in a tree, chased him down when he tried to escape and then hung him by his coat on a spiked fence.
The boy screamed for help and begged to be let go throughout the attack, but no one in the surrounding apartment complex called the police. Finally, a woman driving by broke up the attack and drove Nadin home. The next day, the seven bullies aged 13 to 17 were arrested at school and taken to jail.
Any case of bullying this extreme gets attention, but this one made national news, in part because the bullies filmed it on a camera phone, laughing the whole time, and later shamelessly posted it on YouTube. (Thank goodness thugs like this are generally stupid and film their crimes. It makes convictions so much easier.)
Not only was Nadin outnumbered that day, he came face to face with kids who were clearly “wild,” who see cruelty as sport – something to do when you’re bored if for no other reason than because you can. Though they’ll be punished and locked up for a while, I wish the people who let them become this way could get their share of punishment, too. Somewhere along the way, parents and relatives who were supposed to handle things and “love on ‘em,” as my aunt had said, just let them go and stopped caring what they became. And what they became, for lack of a better term, are animals.
Parenting is a scary business, no matter how you slice it. But it’s even tougher when you realize that your kids go into a world where they could meet others who look harmless on the outside but have no conscience or compassion. How do you prepare kids for that possibility? And how can they defend themselves from it?
Bullies are certainly nothing new, and most of us have survived at least one of them. A bully made my sixth grade year fairly miserable because she threatened to pummel me every day for months. When peaceful negotiations didn’t work, my mother picked up the phone and made it clear to this girl that she knew what was going on and it would all stop immediately, unless she wanted to find out what it was like to poke a very angry mama bear. The bully was no genius, but she apparently had enough sense to know it was time to back off. Sometimes kids have to “fight their own battles,” but sometimes bullies need to know that their targets have people who’ll step in to back them up when they need to.
In an age where bullies operate not only on the playground but also in cyberspace, on smart phones and often attack as a pack, we’re bound to hear more stories like the one in Philadelphia. We can only hope the headlines make us more aware of what it does to our society when a child is left alone to “go wild.”