When I was a teenager, my friends and I spent a lot of time working under a particular woman.
She was one of those adults you approached with caution, divining her mood before engaging her in conversation.
On one of her bad days (one of mine), she threw a juice can at my head. On another, she berated a fragile, young girl until the girl sobbed and repeatedly hit her head off a wall. A good day meant no screaming, no belittling, no destroyed projects (verbally or, sometimes, literally). Often, it just meant that someone else was the target.
Why did we continue working for her, you ask? That’s pretty complex. For starters, she was brilliant, and we loved her ideas. For another, we craved the bonding that came from sharing a common interest. And, on good days, I think we mistook our relief for affection. I don’t know that any of us believed we had the power to fight her. She was the adult, and we accepted her authority.
I have read a lot about bullying, counseled kids through it and been both bully and victim on occasion. From what I understand, a bully needs some advantage over a victim in order to successfully bully. This imbalance takes many forms: a group against an individual, a person with more social standing against someone with less, a person who resembles the group against someone who looks different and so on. I guess I cannot think of a situation that lends itself to power imbalance more than an adult over a child. While I believe that children need powerful adults, I think all adults must evaluate just how they use that power.
I have come to recognize a certain look a child wears when they have had a degrading encounter with an adult. There is a tightness to the face — a shut-down, shattered, bewildered expression that bespeaks hopelessness. In my career — and in my parenting — I have seen that look far too often.