Monday, February 25, 2013

WHYY Talks School Yard Bullying


Today WHYY 90.9 FM Voices in the Family presented “The Minefield of Bullying.”

Voices in the Family is hosted by Dan Gottlieb, and today’s guests were Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, and Dr. Charles Williams, III, a professor at Drexel University.

I’ve written quite a bit about workplace bullying, so it was interesting to hear experts speak about bullying among children and to take note of the various similarities.

But before we get to those, one big difference is that many states, including Pennsylvania, have anti-bullying laws that require schools to take action to create prevention, intervention, and education programs about bullying as well as ensure that there are disciplinary measures in place to hold school bullies accountable. For these I am grateful.

But, unfortunately, workplace bullying is legal, so long as the target is not being harassed because of his or her membership in a protected class. One day I’d like to see that change.

Williams made the point that many adults still don’t understand the harmful effects of bullying and consider it a rite of passage. And, when parents are concerned and do intervene, many children report that the situation gets worse.

Unless your mom’s name is Gwendolyn Johnson, that is.

When I was in the third or fourth grade and being bullied by a group of girls at school, I told my mom. Not right away, but eventually.

Well, the next chance she got she marched right up to that school to deal with the problem. But she didn’t bother speaking with the administrators. Oh no. Instead she went directly to the playground to have a little chat with the offenders, after I’d pointed them out.

I don’t know what she said to them, but I do know they left me alone after that. Yeah, they spent another five minutes teasing me about having my “Mommy” fight my battles, but that’s about it. Of course, this was back in the day when kids were still scared of adults.

Now lest you think this is a terrible story and that no adult should ever approach a child in this manner, let me tell you another story.

When one of my sons was about eight or nine, I learned that he was being bullied at school. So I did the responsible thing and made an appointment with the teacher. The teacher told me that she knew this kid was a problem—she’d gotten multiple complaints—but her hands were tied. She said she’d even complained to the Principal but with no results, although she encouraged me to take a stab at it. Outraged, and thinking that I would probably be wasting my time, I began walking to the Principal’s office. Just then the recess bell rang. And what do you think I did? I did just as my mother had twenty years earlier, that’s what.

A caller into Voices in the Family relayed her story of being bullied years earlier and how it still affects her as an adult. She said that she’d reported the bullying, but no adult had done anything. As a result, her sense of self had been significantly compromised. She told Gottlieb that because no one had stood up for her, she began to believe that she wasn’t worth standing up for. So go ahead and call me an irresponsible adult, I don’t care. I wanted my son to know that he mattered, just like my mother had done for me years earlier.

Bazelon, herself a target of bullies as a child, said that now she “doesn’t take others’ good will for granted,” which I think is yet another pretty powerful testimony about the damaging effects of this phenomenon.

One thing I was pleased to hear both Bazelon and Williams state is that some bullies strategically use aggression as a manipulation technique. And while it may seem odd to hear me say that this pleased me, understand that I find it frustrating that we sometimes give bullies a pass because of the theory that “hurt people, hurt others.” That’s true, and some bullies are “crying out for help,” as Bazelon put it. But others aren’t, and they don’t need our empathy, which they’ll use to manipulate us further. Instead they need discipline and boundaries.

Just like in the workplace, school yard bullies are supported by everyone else’s need to be accepted. To paraphrase Williams, we are social beings, and nothing is more painful for social beings than to be ostracized from the group. This facet of human nature keeps those who witness the bullying, and believe it is wrong, from speaking out. It’s true when we’re ten years old, and it’s true when we’re forty years old, a fact I personally find sad as shit, but what are you gonna do?

Bazelon says that we must balance protecting our kids with their need to learn how to  manage conflict, and I completely agree. She’s hopeful that we can teach our kids how not to bully as well as effective ways to intervene when they witness bullying.

I hope she’s right.

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