Child bullying is so normal that it’s not even seen as bullying

By Ngo Thi Phuong Le   June 17, 2019 | 05:01 pm PT
Adults are instilling in children a depowering mindset when they bully the young ones with tasteless jokes and pranks.
Ngo Thi Phuong Le

Ngo Thi Phuong Le

When I was six, I went from my hometown in Vinh in north central Vietnam to Hanoi to see my father getting his Master’s degree. It was the first time I’d ever left home to go to a different city, with different scenery, different people, even different accents.

After the ceremony ended, my father showed me a group photo of him and his classmates. Some people started to joke that the lady standing next to him was actually his mistress, that she was younger, prettier than my mother. Naturally I was not amused.

I didn’t say anything. I asked my father for the photo, stood up, went to a corner, and tore it. Right between my father and that so-called mistress.

It was untypically reckless of me. I’ve always been the archetypical "good girl," who was always obedient, listened to my parents and never caused any trouble. But that day, something came over me. Fear, and anger, because I believed what the adults said. If my father truly loved that woman in the photo, he would soon leave me and my mother, I thought. I couldn’t take it.

After witnessing what I did, some of the adults came over to apologize and make peace with me. Some laughed out loud and included my reaction in their jokes and gossip stories. Others shook their heads and clicked their tongues.

"Such a naughty girl," they said.

My parents still keep that photo in the family album. Sometimes they take it out to reminisce about the past and laugh the incident off as a funny story. But, for me, it wasn’t funny. Not one bit.

Now that I am all grown up, I realize what happened to me then was nothing less than a form of bullying. And this kind of bullying is especially prevalent in Vietnam. I know, because I have experienced it time and time again at the hands of adults throughout my entire childhood.

"Your parents no longer love you." "Your parents left you to live somewhere else." "Your Dad is with another mistress." "Your Mom found you in a dumpster..." are just some of the statements I can recall off the top of my head. Some of these statements even came from my own parents – telling me that only a dog would marry me if I was so lazy, or that my academic performance couldn’t match that of an elusive, mysterious "child from another family" who I am yet to meet.

Three decades later, a mother myself, I saw this behavior continue. Adults kept treating children like toys: teased them, joked about them, enforced their rules on them, tested their reactions. I once saw my 3-year-old niece have her lollipop taken away from her by a neighbor, for absolutely no reason. The neighbor then told my niece she could have her lollipop back by "bowing and asking for it."

My niece said no. The neighbor then told her she was a "naughty child," who "doesn’t listen to adults." Alright. that’s it, I thought to myself, before going up to him and giving him a big piece of my mind. About how he was wrong to have taken her candy, how absurd it was to make her ask for her own candy. He didn’t take my criticism well.

"It was just a joke, why all the fuss," he mumbled under his breath.

That incident is just one of many examples of the unwitting, normalized child bullying behavior in Vietnam. The children here are nudged, cuddled and kissed without consent by adults, just because they were so "pretty and cute." Little boys even have their genitalia touched and commented on, not to mention laughed at. Such thoughtless, disrespectful behavior, in the eyes of many adults, are just "jokes" to "lighten things up."

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. I once heard a story where a one-year-old boy was killed by his own sister in the northern province of Tuyen Quang because her neighbor made her believe that her parents loved her brother more.

Luckily, my children, who grew up in France, never had to suffer from these senseless, malicious jokes. They may not be meant maliciously, but they are that. Adults treat children much more respectfully, in France. They never kiss a child without consent, even when such an act is commonplace in their culture. They say hi first, unlike in Vietnam, where many parents make their children say hi first to adults. And they don’t hesitate to say "thank you" or "sorry" to children.

Children’s opinions don’t seem to matter in Vietnam. In the eyes of adults, they are to be protected and controlled and taught. They should be told what to eat, what to wear, who to play with and what kind of life they should lead. Any child with a dissenting opinion, a child who speaks his or her own mind, or does not follow or accept an adult’s words is labeled a disobedient child, naughty, troublemaker, rebellious and ingrates.

There is a subliminal message that such behavior and reaction sends to children. They are taught that the strong reign over the weak, and older people are always right.

This mindset, embers within families and neighborhoods, catches fire and leads to bullying in schools, toxic work cultures, violence and corruption.

A founding tenet of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child is that children be respected and listened to, like any other human being in the world. If this is not done, we will be guilty of bullying and fostering a bullying culture.

For a change, adults should stop telling children to listen, and do some serious listening themselves.

*Ngo Thi Phuong Le is a Vietnamese research fellow. The opinions expressed are her own.

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