When it comes to bullying, popular students go after their social peers more than social misfits. That’s according to a new study co-authored by a UC Davis sociologist, which also finds that high status kids get harassed more frequently as they climb the social hierarchy. Is bullying reaching a crisis point in U.S. schools? Check out my interview with Michael Krasny on KQED Forum here.
“It’s as though we’ve put all teenagers in a room together with megaphones, and left them unsupervised,” Sue Porter, dean of students at the Branson School in Marin, says of social media. “And now we have to punish them for being loud.” Read the full story by Rachel Swan in SF WEEKLY.
This week I taped a Perspective at KQED Radio about California’s new anti-bullying legislation, signed into law by Governor Brown just last week. I think it goes too far in giving schools the authority to suspend and expel children as young as fourth grade for texting and social media posts that occur off school grounds.
Here is a link to the audio and online version. Share your thoughts about this new law on my blog.
This isn’t news, but you wouldn’t know it given our national obsession with anti-bullying legislation. In fact, we are so intent on “doing the right thing” by legislating against children that you’d think we were waging war against a new and terrifying enemy. But there is no new enemy.
Children haven’t changed.
What has changed is our tolerance of childhood aggression. One way we demonstrate this through our speech. No longer do we talk about kids making mistakes. Now they are bullies, victims, and bystanders. Another way we demonstrate this is through our laws. We see children as being so mean and terrifying and out of control that we might as well be at war with them, and our primary strategic initiative is Anti-Bullying legislation.
This month the California legislature sent a bill to Governor Brown (AB 256) that would give schools the power to discipline kids for being mean to each other outside of school. If he signs this bill into law, children as young as fourth grade (that is, 9 and 10-year-olds) could be suspended or expelled from school if it is determined that are mean to a classmate, anywhere, anytime.
Plenty of parents think this is a great idea.
One father I spoke with is in favor of the bill because he thinks it will stop the kind of behavior that upset his child so much. He reported that his 12 year-old daughter was cyber-bullied; she received multiple texts from a friend that left her feeling very upset. He believes schools should have the power to intervene in such situations, regardless of when or where the behavior occurred.
My question for parents like him is this: how will you feel when the shoe is on the other foot? But my child’s not a bully, they respond, and I agree. And neither is the other child.
This father didn’t seem to understand the challenges of the preadolescent world, although I appreciate his angst and frustration. He had an upset 12 year-old girl on his hands, and that’s reason enough to want help. But he needed help in understanding his daughter (and all 12 year-old girls), not in punishing the other child. Sadly, he had been convinced by our current war against childhood aggression that he needed to stamp it out, that his daughter shouldn’t have to tolerate any kind of meanness, and that she’s at risk if she gets upset by the actions of a friend. But none of these things is true.
What anti-bullying legislation does, is convince us that our children are in danger and that we have no power to protect them. This simply isn’t the case. There are plenty of things we can do to help our children, but giving schools the authority to punish them for behavior that takes place outside of school isn’t one of them.
In the end, that father did find a way to help his daughter. He talked to her about the situation, approached the parents of the other girl, had a productive and reasonable conversation with them, and everyone cooled down.
All without the aid of legislation.
Yowza. I just read a book that affected me profoundly, and in a way that is going to dramatically change the way I approach the issue of bullying and aggression at my elementary school. It totally rocked my counseling world.
The book—which I read in an afternoon—is Bully Nation by Susan Eva Porter. It would be impossible for me to summarize it quickly and do it justice, so instead I’m going to tell you some of the things that made me go hmm and hope they’ll interest you enough to make you read the book yourself.
So. Turn on the news or listen to the discussions among parents and school staff or think of how often one kid accuses another of bullying. There’s obviously a bullying epidemic, right?
Actually, no there isn’t.
Wait. What the what???
Dr. Porter totally dismantles the widely-accepted notion that kids are under siege from bullies 24/7. While she provides a number of good reasons why we are under that impression, it was when she pointed out that the definition of bullying has expanded hugely in the last ten years or so that I instantly thought, “Well, duh. That is SO incredibly obvious.” Then I did a face-palm because apparently I am not a master of the obvious.
Bullying used to be defined as some form of coercion—forcing someone, usually smaller, to do something they didn’t want to do—often via physical force. It was pretty clear, and most people could agree if something constituted bullying or not. But in the last decade behaviors that used to be considered just plain mean or even routine kid stuff are now being called bullying.
(“Dirty looks?” Really? My brother would have been in jail FOR LIFE. Mom, Mike’s looking at me again!)
What was fairly black-and-white has become much grayer. Many of the newly classified “bullying behaviors” are subtle and subject to interpretation. The “subject to interpretation” part is important to note because as the definition of bullying has expanded and become more amorphous, anti-bully language, school policies, and state laws have moved in the opposite direction, growing more rigid and unequivocal.
In almost any situation at school where there is a conflict between children, anti-bullying procedures kick in. By law in most states, once the B-word is invoked by a child or parent. These force us to spend huge amounts of time and energy investigating every incident, require us to place black-and-white labels on children, and take away our ability to use our professional judgment in dealing with individual situations.
Bully language is overly simplistic and emotionally laden. Its labels—bully, victim, bystander—place children in predetermined roles that are each harmful in their own way. Once the roles have been assigned it is nearly impossible for adults to look at all sides of the story, to have compassion for the child who is labeled as the bully, or to focus on solutions instead of punishment.
Bully language also makes it almost impossible for children to feel hopeful or empowered. The anti-bullying programs and procedures we’re being required to implement give kids a whole lot of messages we shouldn’t be comfortable with.
For “victims,” these include things like:
- Anything anyone does that causes me any type of emotional discomfort or pain is bullying, and it can damage me for life
- I have no control over how I feel; I am completely at the mercy of others and how they treat me
- I am incapable of solving my own problems
- If I’m a “victim,” I don’t have to examine or take responsibility for my own actions
- If I hurt someone’s feelings—even if that wasn’t my intention—then I am a bully
- Being a “bully” means I’m a bad kid and I can never change
- I can never make a social mistake
- Relationships can’t be fixed once there’s a problem
And even for “bystanders:”
- It is my responsibility to stand up for others even if I don’t understand what’s going on
- If I don’t, then I am just as guilty as the bully
The reason we should be opposed to these messages are obvious: they are the opposite of the messages we try to impart to our students every day—that they are worthwhile individuals who are in the process of learning how to be caring, capable, and resilient problem-solvers.
Porter reminds us repeatedly that we are talking about children. During their school careers, kids have to learn many complex social-emotional skills: how to manage their feelings, control their impulses, read social cues, develop empathy, and tolerate frustration, to name a few.
Expecting children to do these things—perfectly, at all times, and regardless of whether or not they are developmentally able to (as Zero Tolerance policies dictate)—is setting them up to fail in a spectacular fashion. Always demonstrating these skills can be a challenge for many adults. We all can personally attest to that.
Social-emotional skills are complicated and need to be explicitly taught. They require lots of practice, reinforcement, and correction, and the child has to be developmentally ready to learn them. Trying to legislate mature social behavior or to teach it only by punishing mistakes would be like suspending a Kindergartener for not knowing his multiplication tables: ridiculous, ineffective, and harmful to his mental health.
I view most kids’ difficulties as skill-based deficits or developmental delays (thanks, Collaborative Problem Solving!), so I try to look at situations from each child’s perspective while considering history and context. It’s important to do this because once we label a child a bully and believe he or she is deliberately setting out to harm peers, we lose both our compassion for that child and our ability to help. When is the last time you were at a meeting where people were thoughtfully considering ways to teach skills rather than punish a so-called bully? My experience has been that once the B-word is invoked, any attempts to try to reframe the conversation are often seen as me being an apologist for the kid’s bad behavior.
School counselors—of all people—need to be able to recognize the complexities of children’s interactions, identify the lagging skills (of all parties!) that create problems, and help come up with positive solutions that will teach those skills. And we need to do it with compassion.
I’ll be scheduling a meeting with my administrators to discuss my personal plan for the upcoming year:
- I will not use any type of bully language when discussing students, and I will steer my colleagues away from doing so.
- I will never forget that:
- all students do well if they can; they are children who are learning how to be kind and socially appropriate and who need support (and appropriate modeling by adults!) to do so
- there are always two sides to a story; almost nothing is as black-and-white as it may first appear
- there is always hope
3. I will adapt my practice this year by focusing on helping kids develop resilience:
- I’ll spend at least part of each session recognizing progress instead of harping on problems
- I’ll teach specific skills for identifying and managing emotions
- I’ll teach specific skills for self-calming
- I’ll provide accurate feedback about students’ behavior
- I’ll continue to use Izzy Kalman’s Bullies to Buddies materials to help children reject others’ negative comments about them (www.bullies2buddies.com)
4. I’m thinking seriously too about teaching kids those verbal talismans that used to “protect” us when we were in school: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me and I’m rubber, you’re glue; what you say bounces off me and sticks to you.I
I can hear you now: “That’s crazy, Laurie!”
And here’s my response: I know you are but what am I?
Read the book. Let’s discuss.
On Tuesday, April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, seniors at
Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado, outside of Denver, planted
bombs in their school cafeteria. Their plan was to detonate the devices at
lunchtime and kill as many of their classmates as possible (their hope was
to kill hundreds). The boys’ preparations were extensive and calculating.
At the appointed hour, they positioned themselves in the student parking
lot, near one of the school entrances, and waited for the bombs to go off.
From their outdoor perches they planned to shoot classmates as they fled
the firestorm. The boys wanted to see the terror on their classmates’ faces
as they attempted to escape the chaos created by the bombs’ explosions
and take out as many survivors as possible as they ran for safety.
Luckily, the bombs failed to detonate and mass destruction was
avoided, but when Eric and Dylan realized their bombs were duds they
stormed the school and rampaged for about an hour, randomly shooting
and terrorizing students and faculty. In the end, the boys killed 12 students
and one teacher before killing themselves.
What made Columbine such a traumatizing and significant event for
the nation, beyond the obvious facts, was that it played out in real time
in the media. Almost as soon as Eric and Dylan started their rampage,
terrified teachers and students—many of them holed up inside the school
in classrooms, closets, and the library—used cell phones to contact their
families, 911, and the local Denver TV stations. As a result, television
crews were on the scene almost immediately, and reporters and news
anchors were able to broadcast live conversations with terrorized captives
hiding inside the school building, while Eric and Dylan were still at large.
Americans watching TV that day bore witness to the horror as it was happening,
and did so from the perspective of the victims. (It is interesting
to note that cell phone use was not yet widespread in 1999; Columbine
was perhaps the first massive traumatic event where cell phones played a key role
in communicating information. Our understanding of the tragedy
was made possible, in part, by cell phones, and they gave the average
American a degree of connection to the event that would not have been
possible only a few years earlier.)
Naturally, the nation was captivated by the images and voices of traumatized
and hysterical students that were broadcast repeatedly—the dramatic
rescue of a student from the window of the school library being a
horrifying, and much replayed, highlight. Even students trapped inside
the school watched the events unfold on televisions in the classrooms;
they got their information about what was happening from the media,
just like the rest of us did.
Understandably, the media coverage of the massacre was extensive,
and Americans were riveted by the unfolding terror. And the search for
answers began almost immediately. Once the events had been chronicled
(and replayed again and again), the focus of the story shifted from what
had happened to why. Everyone wanted to know about Eric Harris and
Dylan Klebold. Who were these boys? What made them do what they
did? It seemed so inexplicable. What could cause two kids from good
families, living the American dream in suburban Colorado, to unleash
such destruction on their fellow students? How could this have happened
to such nice kids in such a nice place?
The public demanded answers to these questions, and the media
was happy to oblige. As a result, before any real investigations were conducted,
before forensics teams had the chance to scour the scene (and
search the perpetrators’ homes and read their detailed journals), and
before the myriad of evidence was evaluated, idle speculation morphed
into theory, which then hardened into fact, and America had the answer
it was looking for.
Eric and Dylan had been bullied, the media proclaimed, which is why
they almost blew up their school, killed as many people as they could, and
then committed suicide. Within hours of the massacre, stories to support
this theory started to emerge. According to sources (who were often
students who didn’t know the boys), Eric and Dylan were part of a group
called the Trench Coat Mafia (a reference to the trench coats they occasionally
wore and had donned on the day of the shootings), a group that existed on the
periphery of the allegedly harsh, exclusive, and socially
stratified world that was Columbine High. Members of this group were
misunderstood outsiders, the media reported, forever denied access to
the world of social privilege enjoyed by the “insiders” at the school—the
jocks, the mean girls, the rich kids, and the other menacing social leaders
who roamed the school halls prowling for victims.
According to reports, Eric and Dylan were picked on, castigated, and
disdained by their peers because they were weird and different. As members
of the Trench Coat Mafia, they suffered mightily at the hands of the
socially powerful in-crowd at Columbine, and the bullying was relentless.
Almost as soon as the media offered this motive for Columbine—as the
massacre quickly became known—it was accepted as truth, and the rallying
cries began. No more bullying! parents demanded. Zero tolerance for bullies!
teachers declared. From the moment the dust settled in the hallways of the
school, Bully Nation (the term I use for the anti-bully movement) was born,
and echoes of these original cries can still be heard in every schoolyard,
classroom, playground, and daycare center across America.
At the time, the connections drawn between Columbine and bullying
were so strong and convincing that they weren’t challenged for years, and
by the time they were, our approach to childhood aggression had permanently
changed. After Columbine, most Americans became convinced on
some level that bullying was so rampant and pernicious that a massacre
like Columbine was inevitable and even understandable—albeit inappropriate—
given the trials suffered by victims like Eric and Dylan.10
An essential takeaway at the time of Columbine was that bullying
was a scourge sweeping the nation and that it must be taken seriously and
stopped, of course. If bullying could cause the tragedy at Columbine, the
reasoning went, then such massacres could happen anywhere. Many in
the anti-bullying movement continue to contend that if we’re not vigilant
about bullying, then tragedies of this nature will continue to occur. And
thus the call to action carries on.
Thanks in part to Columbine, and as a result of the expanded definition
of bullying, we now see it everywhere, and lots of us are terrified.
The cultural belief is that aggression between children is necessarily and
inevitably harmful, and that children may not be safe with their peers
in school or have adequate resilience to get through childhood without
emotional damage. Anti-bullying rhetoric would have us accept, as fact,
that our way of thinking about childhood aggression—in the form of
Bully Language and labels, or the fixed mindset—is both appropriate and
accurate, and that fear and hyper-vigilance are the best responses to the
pains and challenges of childhood.
From my perspective, working in the field with children, it was
Columbine that got this ball rolling. It was the seminal expression of
childhood aggression of our generation, and it changed the cultural perspective
in profound ways. This makes sense. There was no way to experience
Columbine—up close and personal, thanks to the media—and
not feel terrified and transformed forever as a result. America did not
overreact to the tragedy as it was delivered and explained at the time.
Columbine left many questions in its wake, and bullying was the most
convenient answer at the time.
In the country’s desire to comprehend the incomprehensible and
regain a sense of control, bullying became the explanation of choice for
Eric and Dylan’s behavior—not severe psychopathology, which in fact was
the main culprit, or easy access to guns and ammunition, which made the
tragedy possible.11 No, the problem was bullying. And I think this helped
the country move on, at least initially. Great, we said with a sigh of relief,
at least we have a reason for the disaster. Now we can make sure it doesn’t
happen again. An enemy had been identified, and it was bullying. But did
we get it right?
As it happened, a crucial fact got overlooked in the aftermath of the
massacre, a fact that changed the course of bully history forever: Eric
and Dylan weren’t the victims of bullying. It turns out Columbine had
nothing to do with bullying.12 Eric and Dylan weren’t mistreated or marginalized
by their peers, nor were they subjected to repeated abuse. In
addition, Columbine High School wasn’t a dysfunctional community rife
with mean and terrible kids, a veritable breeding ground for aggression.
For weeks and months after the massacre, the media portrayed
Columbine as an alarmingly dysfunctional community, but it wasn’t. By all
accounts it was a caring, responsive school, and it fostered no more problematic
behavior than any other school in America. But this didn’t come to
light until much later. It wasn’t until years after the massacre that investigators
understood Eric and Dylan’s motives. It took time for all of the pieces
of the puzzle to fall into place, and for investigators to realize that the boys
did what they did for complex reasons, bullying not being one of them.
Nevertheless, by the time the truth came to light the Myth of
Columbine was set in stone, and bullying was on its way to being perceived
as one of the biggest threats facing America’s children. Some might
argue that the facts about the cause of Columbine don’t matter at this
point, because the myth has become part of our collective truth.
In the end, Columbine put bullying on the map and it put America
on high alert.
Fear: The Legacy of Columbine
Changes occurred in schools after Columbine. Teachers searched for any
indication of violence in their students’ behavior, including their writing,
speech, or artwork. Any signs of distress, or perceived distress, were dealt
with swiftly (although not necessarily effectively). Teachers wondered
how they could determine whether the next Eric or Dylan was sitting in
their classroom. How could they prevent the next tragedy from happening?
Parents were fearful, too. Would their children be safe at school, and
how could they protect kids from their dangerous classmates?
People were scared.
I remember the case of one boy, a 16-year-old high school junior,
whose entries in his English journal a few months after Columbine raised
some red flags. He had used some violent imagery to express his feelings,
which left his teacher in a panic. She went to the chair of her department,
who went to the vice principal, who went to the principal, who went to
the child’s parent. People were scared out of their minds that this boy had
been hurt and was now in danger of hurting himself or others. The school
wanted him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which the student himself
thought was ridiculous. When confronted with everyone’s concern,
the boy claimed he had merely been blowing off some steam.
Before Columbine, interventions like this were rare. I had not heard of
anything like this before the massacre; now such interventions are routine.
And rightly so—we should always respond if we fear a child is in danger.
But what constitutes true danger? With our new definition of bullying,
our conception of what is dangerous has expanded considerably. Now,
per the definition, teasing is dangerous. Name-calling is dangerous. Being
excluded from a game at recess is dangerous. No wonder people are scared.
After Columbine, the fear seemed justified. Contemplating the connection
between bullying and wanton murder was terrifying, but it was
a reasonable connection to make given how the media portrayed the
tragedy. Years after Columbine many of us are still terrified, despite the
fact that the massacre had nothing to do with bullying. And while we
might not be consciously terrified of another Columbine occurring, we’re
unabashedly, and increasingly, terrified of bullying. Bullying now tops the
list of things parents are scared of. A national survey commissioned by
Care.com, in October 2010, reported that, “Nearly one in three parents
of children ages 12-17 agree that bullying is a more serious concern than
other dangers, including domestic terrorism, car accidents, and suicide.”13
In the course of just a decade, bullying has gone from being something
that was underneath the radar to being the thing parents are most
concerned about when it comes to children’s welfare. This is truly astonishing
given that, as I’ve said, childhood is safer than ever before by many
accounts and measures.14 If Columbine was the event that sparked this
firestorm about bullying, then parents’ fears continue to serve as the kindling,
and there’s nothing to suggest that this fear is going away any time
soon. The parents I work with are very worried about bullying, and even
when they are presented with facts that should serve to allay their fears,
they remain scared. Even when their own children have never been bullied
or witnessed bullying themselves, they remain fearful.
I recently heard of a group of parents who get together regularly to
discuss “problem kids” in their children’s schools. The parents identify
the children whom they believe to be actual or potential bullies (I assume
their own children do not make the list) and then work to keep their
children away from the potential threats. This is what scared looks like,
and this fear is both the cause and the effect of our expanded definition
I can assure you that the children of the above-mentioned parents
live in some of the safest areas of the country; their risk of experiencing
physical violence at the hands of their peers is negligible. In truth, these
kids are much more likely to experience self-inflicted dangers, such as
car accidents, drug or alcohol misuse, or snowboarding into a tree, than
physical harm by a classmate. For these concerned parents, then, physical
bullying can’t be the driving force behind their fears. If physical bullying
were our greatest fear as a culture, then the definition of bullying wouldn’t
have increased the way it has over the past decade. No, the fear isn’t about
children getting hurt physically, it’s about them getting hurt emotionally,
and this is what the new definition of bullying is trying to address.
Our cultural concern about children experiencing psychological
pain, and the desire to prevent it, are the primary reasons the definition of
bullying has expanded beyond recognition. But this has had a paradoxical
effect on kids. Instead of promoting the development of resilience,
which is presumably the goal of anti-bullying efforts, it actually inhibits
it. Why? Think about it. Bullying is everywhere: in the statistics, on the
news, in the movies. Wouldn’t you be scared if you were a kid? But bullying
is everywhere because the definition of bullying has changed, not
because children have changed, and not because the risk of pain or damage
is any worse than it used to be. The perception is that childhood is
more dangerous now because of bullying, but it’s not, nevertheless, this is
the perception being taught to children, and this is dangerous because it
affects how children develop resilience.
10. The theory that Eric and Dylan were bullied was so well accepted that
it even made it onto the big screen, in the movie Bowling for Columbine (2002).
There is a scene where director Michael Moore interviews Matt Stone, one of the
co-creators of the television show South Park and a native of Littleton, Colorado.
In a voiceover, Moore says, “Matt . . . found a way to take [his] anger at being
different in Littleton and turn it, not into carnage [like Eric and Dylan], but into
a cartoon [South Park].” Matt then explains that all of the “dorks” in high school
went on to do interesting things while all the cool kids are still in Littleton, selling
insurance. “I wish someone could have grabbed them [Eric and Dylan].” Matt
says. “If someone could have told them that, then maybe they wouldn’t have
11. Mental health experts agreed years later that Eric Harris suffered from
Anti-Social Personality Disorder; he was a sociopath. Eric’s voluminous journals
provided investigators with an in-depth view into the mind of a sociopath
(also known as psychopath). Anti-Social Personality Disorder is characterized
by, among other things, lack of empathy, remorse, shame or guilt; pathological
lying; shallow emotions; grandiose sense of self and extreme narcissism; superficial
charm; trouble with the law. Eric had all of these in spades, and he carefully planned his violent rampage for over a year. Dylan, on the other hand, was lost.
He wouldn’t have come up with the plan for Columbine on his own, but he was
depressed and suicidal enough to sign on. (Sociopaths are rare, and most sociopaths
are not violent. Instead of killing people like Eric Harris did, non-violent
sociopaths may be quite high-functioning and they generally skirt the law. If
they’re very successful, non-violent sociopaths might engage in high brow criminal
activity, such as running corporations in Enron fashion or bilking people of
their life savings, like Bernie Madoff.)
12. I am indebted to Dave Cullen and his excellent book Columbine (Twelve,
March 2010) for this information.
13. Care.com, Wednesday, October 20, 2010.
14. National Center for Educational Statistics.
Excerpted from BULLY NATION Copyright Susan Eva Porter, Ph.D.
Twice this week I heard someone say that bullies learn their behavior at home. Like father, like son, or something to that effect.
Is this true? Bullying is everywhere these days. It’s sweeping the country, so according to the promoters of the like father, like son logic, American parents have turned into a bunch of assholes. If this is the case, then we should immediately drop our obsession with our kids and focus on their parents—those assholes that are causing all of the problems.
But it’s not as simple as that.
Most of what passes for bullying these days—teasing, name-calling, social exclusion—are not behaviors passed down from parent to child. They are outcroppings of the adolescent brain, especially as it travels through middle school.
Recall, if you will, the nightmare of the middle school hallway: the utter self-consciousness you felt as you walked to your locker. Or the self-absorption that surrounded you, like a cloud, as you struggled to answer a teacher’s question. Or the speed with which stupid things flew out of your mouth in the process. Or recall the middle school cafeteria, another hotbed of prepubescent angst. The fear you felt as you stood on the threshold, tray in hand, wondering where will I sit? What if I’m left alone? Is my ass fat?
Now imagine 20 or 50 or 100 pre-teens, all together, thinking the same things–pushing up against one another like a psychic rugby scrum–each one living in his or her own private hell of self-absorbed self-consciousness. All this, without the benefit of a mature brain, one that can calm itself down, reason with itself (your ass isn’t that fat), have perspective. No, the middle school brain can’t do these things on a regular basis, so what does it do? It says nasty things. It leaves people out. It is selfish. It lashes out. It makes mistakes.
Many of these mistakes are now considered bullying, and we’re despite to find the culprit. Parents are easy and natural targets. And while I’m sure some parents are just as self-absorbed and self-conscious and lacking in impulse control as their pubescent kids, I’m willing to wager that most are not. In fact, most have nothing to do with what happens between kids at school.
If we really want to help kids, we should stop blaming parents and try to understand how children’s brains and minds function during puberty and adolescence. What they need from us is patience, compassion, and the faith that they will survive this awkward and painful stage.
In mean, we did, didn’t we?
It’s incredible what passes for bullying theses days.
I recently heard from two school principals about bullying incidents at their respective schools. Both principals were very concerned about their situations, but not because of the behavior itself. Rather, both were troubled that the definition of bullying has swelled to such a degree that almost any conflict between children now qualifies as bullying, and this has left people like them–school administrators–in a very difficult position.
The first incident occurred between middle school girls. The principal reported that she received a phone call from a mother who was very upset because her daughter was being mercilessly bullied by some classmates, and she wanted to know what the principal intended to do about it. After calming the mother down, the principal learned that the woman’s daughter was teased, just once, for wearing big earrings. Not for having big ears, for having big earrings.
The second case involved two groups of middle school students that accused each other of bullying. Armed with self-righteousness indignation and the claims to victimhood that are the hallmarks of the pre-adolescent child, the groups marched separately into the principal’s office and charged their classmates with bullying. After the principal patiently listened to each side of the story, it became clear what was going on. The students were engaged in a power struggle about what game to play at recess.
I hear stories like this all the time from school administrators, and they would be laughable if our current anti-bullying frenzy didn’t require us to take situations like this “seriously.” Once the charge of bullying has been made, regardless of how specious the claim may be, school personnel must proceed cautiously, and often in lockstep with policies that have left common sense by the wayside.
Instead of dealing with such incidents for what they are—that is typical, predictable, and normal expressions of childhood conflict–our current definition of bullying, which includes teasing and social exclusion, requires us to react as though a child’s self-esteem is on the line whenever he or she feels a little emotional pain or discomfort. This simply isn’t the case, but you wouldn’t know it given how we’re expected to respond when the charge of bullying is leveled.
Sadly, we are creating a lot more problems for our children in the long run by believing that they will be permanently damaged by the routine social problems that occur throughout childhood. I am not suggesting that all cases of conflict or aggression that are labeled bullying are this benign, but many of them are. What these cases reveal is that our definition of bullying has become unwieldy, and as these principals can attest, this isn’t serving our children.
Consider this. Despite our current obsession with bullying, children are no more aggressive than they used to be. The truth is there is no research to suggest that kids have undergone a massive transformation over the past generation—they’re the same as ever. And yet, in the past decade, almost every state and school district in the nation has enacted laws and policies against children in the form of anti-bullying legislation. In fact, bullying is considered a felony in some jurisdictions.
But if children are the same, then what’s changed? What explains the anti-bullying frenzy that grips the nation and compels us to enact laws that make children felons?
One thing that’s changed radically in the past decade is how we talk about childhood aggression, and specifically the way we rely on labels to describe the dynamics between children. When we label children bullies, victims, or bystanders they become players in a tightly scripted and fixed drama. Bullies are guilty, victims are innocent, and bystanders should know the difference. There’s no room for interpretation or nuance once children are labeled, and this hurts everyone.
For instance, children are keenly aware of the power of labels, and once labeled they will live up to our expectations of them. Call them stupid, and they will underperform. Call them ugly, and they will see ugliness in themselves. Call them bully—or victim–and eventually they will comply. Ironically, name-calling between children is currently considered a form of bullying, yet we have no trouble calling children names when it serves us.
This do as I say, not as I do approach with children does not get us the outcome we seek (which presumably is for them to be kind to one another). Instead, using labels only fuels our self-righteous anger toward them and increases our fear for their welfare. Beg to differ? Then ask yourself when you last felt compassion for a child labeled bully, or helped a child labeled victim consider his role in a painful social dynamic. Labels give us permission to behave toward children in the very ways we are asking them to avoid; with labels we objectify them, put them in a box, and leave them no room to see possibilities for change.
If we really want to help children in their relationships with each other, we must start thinking about them differently, and we can begin this process by eliminating labels from our vocabulary. The truth is children will never learn the lessons we want them to learn until we stop calling them names.