When Theodore Roosevelt used the term “bully” in the early 20th century, he meant something positive, like the bully pulpit (an excellent platform). According to one biographer, it was on a train in Maine that a teenaged TR stood up to his first bully in the modern sense of the word, getting into a fistfight and winning.

Earlier this month, a piece by Dan Dunkle on bullying in local middle schools cited a 2019 poll that found nearly half of Maine schoolchildren experience some form of bullying, whether physical or online. As a parent, that must sound alarming, but from a broader perspective, it’s hardly surprising.

Kids can be cruel. Sure, they’re usually sweet little cherubs, but in their abandon, their thoughtlessness, they can seem meaner than grown-ups because they lack the built-in guardrails mature adults develop only through bitter experience … right? Their modus operandi is always the same:

Find someone’s soft spot and poke.

When you bully or tease someone in person, it becomes more obvious when to stop thanks to body language. Online, that is harder, as the pain you inflict may not be registered in the immediate response the same way as a flinch or tears, but rather in the pause and the silence.

My son went to kindergarten in Moscow, and one day, told his mother he was being bullied by a boy name Alyosha. The next morning, I marched him into school and asked the first kid I saw if he was Alyosha. The kid nodded, and I unloaded on him in my rudimentary Russian. I then noticed a little puddle growing around the kid’s sneakers. At this point my son tugged at my coat.

“Wrong 'Lyosha,” he whispered crossly.

The kid probably grew up hating Americans, who knows, maybe he later was an easy recruit for St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency and wreaked his vengeance on U.S. Facebook groups in 2016. One can never really know these things, but one fact became clear: My intervention was counter-productive.

What should a parent do? In the 1950s, the right response might have involved going over the offending kid’s parents and demanding an apology, or possibly even bopping the father on the nose if they refused. That was old school. Today, for a host of reasons, we look to the school to handle it.

Statistics show bullying is on the rise, and we don’t have to think too hard to come up with reasons why. America was just treated to a bizarre rope-a-dope spectacle for four years with an unhinged bully as president, who berated anyone he disagreed with on Twitter while his beautiful, enigmatic wife headed a “Be Best” anti-bullying campaign, the actual impact of which has yet to be seen. It’s hard to blame anyone for being confused.

I asked a friend who is an educator what’s wrong. She told me the system is too reactive, and needs to be more proactive. Dunkle’s piece reports school administrators take the issue seriously and have involved police in several instances. That ought to give would-be bullies pause, but remember, these are kids we’re talking about. They have, as an old expression puts it, ears on top of their heads.

It is our put-down culture that is to blame. When we ourselves mistake snark for cleverness or humor, and strain to see the negative, kids take note. They are hard-wired to push each other’s limits and often need equal and opposite push-back in order to stop.

The easier it becomes to tease, the greater our own responsibility to make sure no one’s getting hurt. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.