I’m heartened to see bullying front and center in the media these days. Oprah dedicated a show this week to the problem, interviewing several families whose children had committed suicide as a result of intense, chronic bullying. She also had an expert focus attention on what children need to do when bullied. This was a good start. I agree that children share in the responsibility of dealing with bullies. Schools and parents have not done enough to help those children to stand up to bullies with assertiveness. However, the experts said nothing about what schools must do in response to the bullies.
Imagine if you went to the park with your children and a large, aggressive man came up to you and started calling you vicious names, threatening to hurt or kill you, and even shoving you or worse. Would you simply rely on your “assertiveness training” to deal with him? What would you do if the man continued to do this whenever you were at the park?
You would call the police. That’s what a sane person would do! Why? Because threatening, harassing, and assaulting another person is a crime and you would likely recognize that the man would be arrested. This is what adults do; they get proper authorities involved. After all, they are there to serve and protect.
Why do we not afford our children the same protection and model the same kind of response? Parents must do this for their children whenever bullying becomes violent. If your school seems unwilling to do their part—and even if they do their part—I say get the law involved.
Victims also share some responsibility when it comes to being bullied. First, the child must report the bullying, whether it is physical, emotional, sexual, social, or cyber-bullying. Parents can’t help if they don’t know what is going on.
Second, the child must be willing to take responsibility for any behavior he or she is doing that creates or exacerbates the ire of his peers. While bullying is never acceptable and should never be tolerated, sometimes children do things that, well, are asking for it. The child must take steps to remove this factor from the equation.
Third, the child must learn appropriate, assertive responses to bullies. Ignoring mildly annoying behaviors is one thing; kids can’t be so thin-skinned that everything is perceived as a heinous crime. But ignoring bullying is never the right move. Learning how to stand up to a bully—physically and verbally—and say “No more!” is essential.
Let’s get back to the first responsibility of the child: reporting. This is extremely difficult for children to do, because they are often intensely ashamed of the bullying and are afraid of the repercussions of “tattling”. Many children I know who have been bullied tell me that they know the school will not do anything significant to the bully, so they choose to stay quiet. They believe that the only effect of telling will be that the bully will mock the child even more or seek vengeance for whatever punishment followed. The most important factor, which I have written about before, is the response of the adults. If a child reports bullying early in the bullying sequence, the school MUST take it seriously and respond swiftly and weightily.
Wrist-slaps will serve only to convince the child that he will not be protected. This invalidates the school as an authority and forces the child to remain silent. I hope I need not convince anyone how tragic this is.
Schools must respond swiftly with resolve and with serious consequences. They must not only punish the child, but they must communicate the gravity of the situation with the bully’s parents. They, in turn, must be held accountable for their child’s behavior. Again, parents of bullies cannot intervene if they are unaware of their child’s behavior.
Finally, other students have a smaller but significant responsibility to the victim and the bully. They must be able to report bullying with sufficient confidence, to assure that no vengeance will be sought on them.
Let’s start building teams that can effectively fight bullying and create civil, loving, just, and moral subcultures in our schools.