Anti-Bullying – the cause du jour?

My Thoughts On Bullying – (and the new school program)

I believe that ‘Bullying’ as defined in today’s culture is not a problem.  Rather, it is a symptom to a problem.  We are now in danger of over-inflating and over-emphasizing ‘bullying’.  Not that it isn’t a problem, but that by casting a wide net in it’s definition and “sloganizing” our deterrent efforts we diminish the actual issues and neuter the much needed dialogue on the subject.  What follows are some of my initial thoughts while writing my new anti-bullying school assembly program.

Yes, there are kids who are independently, deliberately harassing and hurting other kids.  But the rogue bully is the exception, and probably needs special attention from a professional.  The term “Bullying” as it is being used now, has an ever widening definition.  Anything from spreading gossip to pushing on the playground is considered “bullying.”  Bad behavior should never be excused, but redifining behavior that used to be considered the result of a bad attitude or was just annoying or unkind will do little to help the cause.  Bullying is NOT acceptable, but neither should it become a catch-all for the negative actions that kids have always participated in.

In my anti-bullying school show I address the bottom line that most kids and adults can relate to:  Kids can be cruel.  But more often than not, they don’t mean to be cruel.  And, if they do, they simply do not understand the gravity of their actions or its long lasting consequences.

“I was bullied as a kid, and I turned out fine.”
“It’s not that big of a deal.  Kids will be kids.”

Of course.  Many parents have a flippant attitude toward the subject.  And who can blame them?  They aren’t wrong to think that there is “nothing new under the sun.”  In a recent interview on WBAP in Dallas, TX, the morning show host asked me “Do you think bullying is getting worse?”  No.  I don’t.  I responded with an anecdote my grandmother told me about a classmate who took a shotgun to her one room schoolhouse in Texas in the 30’s when she was young.  His intent was to use it.  But this is just a single, isolated, and probably rare, example.  But how many of us know a “perfectly fine” adult who wears his hair long, not because of fashion, but because he prefers his ears to be covered, hidden from view?  Or the beautiful woman who has it all together, yet her entire facebook photo album hasn’t a single photo where her smile shows her teeth?  This is a result of “turning out fine” in spite of the cruel words from classmates as a young person.  And it isn’t just vanity.  “I don’t like to write poetry”  “I’m not really a runner” “I’m not a people person.”  Healthy, well adjusted, creative, athletic and friendly adults shy away from activities solely because of negative comments from classmates during vital, vulnerable periods of their lives.  Somebody teased them as a kid, and it’s altered their lives forever.

But, in the classic sense, this isn’t a result of bullying, it’s a result of “kids being kids”.  And while I think the lines between good old fashioned bad behavior and actual bullying have been blurred, this doesn’t mean either should be ignored.  Both require thoughtful consideration.  And teaching children empathy as well as cause-and-effect is essential.

This bit of philosophy is what informs the content of my live school program.  During my presentation I share true anecdotes from my own childhood with special emphasis on these ideas:

1. Kids often say things that they don’t realize sound mean and don’t understand the real impact of their words and actions.

2. When children work together in groups, their impact is multiplied.

3. How we treat one another as children is often remembered for a lifetime.

4. It is possible to stand alone and stand up for what is right.

5. No matter how bad it feels to be bullied, there is hope and things do get better.

 

Kids are resilient and they learn fast.  They will learn slogans, repeat plans of action, and parrot back any sentences they are taught.  But teaching anti-bullying by teaching our children to be slogan-machines will not do anyone any good.  Learning to be kind, thoughtful and have real empathy for one another is not done in a series of drills, call and repeat shouts, or learning and memorizing lists.  We need to teach our students to think, ask themselves questions, to listen to their conscious, and to thoughtfully consider their actions and feelings.

Personal Criticisms:
Part of being a kid-show performer is spending a lot of time examining my own childhood and my own insecurities that are rooted in childhood experiences.

I’m certainly not a “qualified” critic of how things are done, but I do have a few opinions about the current climate in public schools in regards to non-academic education.

Kids in schools all over the country are now being given “Bullying Report Forms” where they can fill out paperwork whenever someone mistreats them.  I have heard first hand that this is creating a social anomale where filling out these “reports” is a kind of currency for the students.  It’s wielded as a weapon by children.  They can threaten one another with a report.  The intention is for children to have a simple way to alert adults when they feel subjugated or threatened.  But it quickly turned into a strange bureaucracy and dozens of reports were filed in a single 5th grade student body every day.  The staff responded by turning the single page report into a 6 page report. Yipes!

Then there are the anti-bullying products, which are rooted in child psychology theory (and the sales of countless books currently on the market aimed at school counselors and administrators) and well meaning crusaders who promote and sell campaigns for use in the public school market.

And all around the country I see slogans.

Don’t Be A Bully!

This is a sub-optimal way to teach kids empathy.  Remember “Just Say No!”?  The anti-drug campaign was a bust.  It over simplified the problem and turned the “solution” into a slogan.  The same thing is happening again with “Bullying”.

I participated as a student in the DARE program, like all kids of my generation I was a target for the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” campaign, as a teenager I was also a peer leader in America’s PRIDE (the teen version of DARE), and now currently share an office with the head writer for the National Crime Prevention Council’s “McGruff The Crime Dog” drug and crime prevention program that was installed in thousands of schools around the country.  In spite of being a recognized community leader in drug prevention as a youth and having a close friendship with someone who was integral to drug education for kids in the 80’s, I have to say, none of it was really effective.  I go into those reasons on my drug awareness blog.  I mention this fact because I see well meaning community leaders and frustrated administrators falling into the same ruts on “bullying” as those who tried to suit up for the “War on Drugs” in my youth.

The problem is reduced to a slogan, incidents are treated as equal in spite of huge differences in cause and effect, and a general mis-understanding of how kids interact with one another seems prevelant.  With drugs, it seemed like the education was ignorant of how drug use really starts and the nuanced situations that kids find themselves in.  With bullying, it seems like the education is written by people who forgot what its really like to be a kid in the strange and unique social structure that is “public school.”

So I find myself in a position where I actually care.  Childhood was poignant and tough for me, and like most people, the taunts of childhood teasing still echo audibly in my mind from time to time .  I can only hope that my concern for kids and my genuine desire to guide them towards empathy will yield results.

So, I will continue to tour the country using juggling and magic as an attention getting tool and to earn some fun “cred” with the students.  But in this particular show I lean heavily on true stories from my youth, clearly worded challenges to kids who might lack empathy, and most importantly – a lot of encouragement to kids who may be hurting.

If you have comments about this opinion blog, disagree with me, or would like to book one of my shows at your school, check out the contact information under “INFO” at the top of this page.

–Darren Collins