Talking about Bullying

As promised, here is a slightly modified version of the Book Corner column I wrote for the parent newslettter of my daughters’ school program. Please share in the comments how your school or community is working to create a violence-free and violence-proof community for (y)our children. Public discourse around this issue is vital!

Bullying is a complex problem; its solution requires changes in many aspects of a community or society’s culture. It is also, as Barbara Coloroso puts it, is a matter of life and death. She cites numerous examples of suicides and school shootings by children who were bullied as well as some bullying incidents that culminated in the target’s death. Coloroso takes the productive stance that the terms in her book’s title, The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, are roles children play rather than their identities. She focuses on how parents and teachers can prevent children from becoming typecast. Instead of punishment that helps children learn not to get caught, she emphasizes discipline that helps children understand the impact of their actions, or in the case of bystanders, inaction. Her book describes ways to recognize when children are involved in bullying (a chapter called “Is there a bully in the house?”) or being bullied (they’re not likely to come right out and tell) as well as a discussion of the reasons and excuses bystanders give for their varying levels of complicity. She describes the parenting styles more likely to produce bullying behavior as well as the style that tends to yield empathic, considerate behavior in children. When bullying does happen–and she asserts that surveys of a school’s students will show more bullying than any adults expect–her advice focuses on restorative justice so that all involved may take on a new role in the school community. Given the sheer number of bystanders it seems useful to start with her chapter teaching bystanders to take on a witness role, including how they can help and how the school and community need to protect them from retaliation.

Too often peers avoid or shun a child who is bullied. In Schools Where Everyone Belongs, Stan Davis says the overwhelming majority of bullied children say what would help them the most is the friendship of peers. Bystanders who ignore a targeted child compound the pain and reinforce the bullied child’s impression that something is wrong with him/her. I found much of Davis’s advice in line with Coloroso’s (both draw from Dan Olweus’s research), though he focuses somewhat more on the school staff than on parents. Still, using different terms, he agrees with Coloroso that authoritarian/”brick wall” parenting and permissive/”jellyfish” parenting more likely produce children who bully than does authoritative/”backbone” parenting. Both also claim that adults often want the victims to solve the problem alone, which simply does not work. Because Davis finds that bullies seldom recognize that anti-bully presentations are about their own behavior, and their parents are often similar, again I felt that the most hope for change lies in the plurality of bystanders.

I also looked at The Bully-free Classroom by Allan L. Beane and Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons as these titles had come up in workshops at our school four years ago. I didn’t love the first, though it contained some potentially useful surveys. Despite its lip service that targeted children never deserve bullying, it still asserted that some children don’t help themselves fit in. This was a real red flag for me, given the laundry list of excuses bullies have for picking their targets. Coloroso’s statement that some children could use help in friend-making skills is as far as I can go down the what’s-wrong-with-the-target-child path. I did love Odd Girl Out for its seminal exposition of the anguish of social exclusion most often perpetrated by girls, but prefer to recommend the first two books due to their solutions orientation.

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