It seems that an epidemic of bullying has suddenly descended on our children the likes of which the world has never seen. Not a day passes that we don’t hear multiple news reports about the latest bully attack. Kids are committing suicide. Mental health professionals camp on cots outside network news offices, waiting their turn in the never-ending commentary cue. From Oprah to O’Reilly, everyone wants to solve the problem of bullying, but it seems to be getting worse instead of better. Why? Because we’re going at it backwards.
We’re doing it wrong!
Here’s my approach. Let’s start teaching our kids to deal with it. Instead of proudly bestowing victim status on our children, we should teach them to stand up for themselves.
Oprah would have us teach our kids that the first response to bullying is to go tell the school officials. While this may be appropriate in some cases, the approach is symptomatic of our larger attitude toward self-reliance. Even as adults, we are becoming a nation of helpless weaklings whose first response to any problem is to go to find an authority figure to take care of us. If we think a top-down approach can protect our children from bullies, we are fooling ourselves. Programs and policies can play a role, but until our kids learn to fend for themselves, the problem will only get worse.
Obligatory disclaimer: Of course, students should know that they can ask teachers for help when needed, just as we know we can call the police when needed. But calling the authorities should not be our first response to most interpersonal disputes. Why would we teach our kids anything different?
Raising victims enables bullies.
I’m no Dr. Phil, but it seems to me that bullies compensate for their own insecurity by dominating and putting down others. They feed on this power like an addictive drug and will continue the behavior as long as their victims enable them. Adults may be able to use the power of authority to temporarily stop a bully, but the resulting feeling of powerlessness only serves to intensify the bully’s need to seek power over others. Because the driving force behind bullying is the helplessness of the victim, the best way to stop a bully is to empower the victim. When the bully realizes he (or she) has no victim, he no longer gets the kick from the drug. Sure, he may still need counseling and/or punishment to resolve their larger inner problems, but this can work only after the initial detox of removing the source of their power.
Sticks and stones… (well, you know)
As a third grader, I was physically bullied by another boy. I told my dad. Did he come to the school and have a conference with the principal? No. He taught me to stand up for myself, and fight back if necessary. My dad taught me to fight, literally. I did fight back, and after one punch, the other kid quickly backed down. Not only did I gain the respect of the bully, I gained respect for myself that has given me confidence all my life. As an added bonus, I believe that the bully benefited from the experience as well (although I don’t think he realized it at the time). Some say that violence is never the answer, but I beg to differ. Had my dad treated me as a helpless victim, the bully would have been empowered and my resulting insecurity might well have created another bully in me. My third grade tormentor and I both learned a powerful lesson that day, a lesson too many of our children will never learn.
Of course it’s a complex subject, and there are many problems in our society that contribute to the problem of bullying. The coarseness of the culture, our glorification of violence, absent fathers, the removal of God as a guiding force in our lives, all these are factors. But certainly a major contributor is our fundamental shift from raising confident, self-reliant individuals to raising helpless wimps.
In a society in which “the community” has supplanted the individual, self-reliance is now frowned upon. Therein lies the real problem. When we fail to teach our children to take care of themselves, we teach them to be losers. And we feed them to the bullies.