I put these hypotheticals to my children:

You and a friend are purposefully throwing rocks at a brick wall. You know you shouldn’t throw stones at the building … but as the rocks bounce harmlessly off it, you aren’t hurting anything. One of your rocks veers slightly and smashes through a window painted to look like the brick wall. You didn’t know it was a window. The subsequent damage was not your intent. Perhaps you wouldn’t even have thrown the rock had you know about the glass.

How much are you to blame for the consequences of purposefully and intentionally throwing the rock?

You are in traffic. The old woman driving in front of you is going painfully slow. You lay on your horn. You yell out your window. Flip her off as you make your way past. Unbeknown to you, she had just suffered a major trauma. Your actions further exacerbate her distraught mental state and she crashes into parked car, or hits a utility pole or runs up over the curb and hits a child playing ball in the front yard.

How much are you at fault?

These aren’t easy questions. We revisited them because of the news reports over the tragic bullying suicide cases. Where the peers of the victims make those defensive comments: “How were we supposed to know he/she was so sensitive?” “They were so quiet, so solid – the teasing never seemed to bother them” or “I’ve been teased/bullied just the same way and didn’t kill myself.”

There aren’t easy answers. But we need to have the discussion, for when the consequences aren’t hypothetical.

-Maryfrances Palmisano
Former social worker and juvenile/criminal defense attorney
Instructor at JK Lee Black Belt Academy in Milwaukee, WI
Mother of three children