Kids pick up on the power of language at a very young age. By the time they are three or four, many of them know that calling another child a bully will get instant adult attention. I call this the power of the “b-word,” as in some of the following examples:
“He always gets to choose our bedtime story – he’s a real bully!”
“She didn’t invite me to her birthday party. She’s such a bully!”
“He bullied me when he knocked over my tower of blocks!”
“They are bullying me – they don’t want to be my friend at school.”
Bullying is such a hot topic these days, that it’s easy to see why there is confusion about the differences between bullying and normal misbehaviour. It’s easy for kids of all ages to think that anyone who says something mean, starts a fight, spreads a rumour or acts in inappropriate ways is a bully. And that’s simply not true (click here to read more about the critical differences). We need to deal constructively and appropriately with all these forms of anti-social behaviour, but understanding the distinction is important for all kinds of reasons, from appropriate responses to whether or not it needs to be formally documented by the school.
But even when we know a series of incidents are clear-cut instances of bullying, we need to be careful how we use our language. I always remind the parents and educators in my workshops that we are working within the educational system, not the justice system. Our ultimate objective is to correct inappropriate behaviours, support all the parties involved in moving on, make restitution or amends where appropriate and teach pro-social skills. In other words, our main goal is to teach, not punish.
That doesn’t mean punishment is never appropriate. Bullying causes real harm to those who are targeted, and there needs to be consequences for that, and practical support for the children who have been on the receiving end. But punishments need to be conceived of within the framework of education, guidance and support, not retribution.
I understand the pain caused by bullying is real and significant. I well remember the sting of exclusion and teasing when I was a child, but I must admit the thought of my own three children being bullied is 100 times more painful. I understand the visceral response of parents. Parents of children who were bullied often want nothing less than the pound of flesh from their kids’ tormentors: expulsion from school, public humiliation, serious repercussions. But except for the most serious of circumstances, when laws are broken and/or serious harm has taken place and previous interventions didn’t work, we need to use an educational orientation to our response.
We need to avoid labelling children as “bullies” and “victims.” Both of these labels are harmful and can lead to kids being ostracized at schools. And both of these labels can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. Bullies are the modern-day ogres of our popular culture; bullying is the scarlet letter no one wants to wear. Parents of kids who bully will often fight schools who try to communicate the seriousness of the problems, because no one wants to believe their child is a monster. Sometimes it helps to back away from the “b-word,” take a deep breath and use less inflammatory language.
Here are some of the ways we can support kids who bully, so that we can intervene in early years before problems become more serious:
- Implement clear conflict resolution policies in schools, so kids don’t feel they have fight for their place;
- Teach pro-social skills, so kids understand how to manage stressful social situations;
- Teach emotional intelligence, so they develop empathy and collaborative skills;
- Identify those children at risk for bullying behaviours. For example, those with evidence of strong social intelligence can be used for leadership instead of manipulation;
- Teach kids about the long-term consequences of bullying for both perpetrators and targets, such as anxiety, depression, lowered academic scores, problems in the workplace, family difficulties, etc.;
- Target the transition years, when kids change schools, with buddy programs, mentoring, advisory groups and peer-to-peer counselling.
When we put aside guidance in favour of punishment for kids who bully, we miss a golden opportunity to teach them a better way. We need to remember that these are still kids and teens growing up. When we help them we are also helping those they target in the future, in their families and workplaces.
Do you want to learn more about what protecting your children from bullying? I will be offering a practical parenting workshop entitled “Beyond Sticks & Stones: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Kids & Bullying” at the YM-YWHA in Montreal on October 28th, at 7:30 p.m. (5400 Westbury Ave. in Kellert Hall). Tickets are $15 for members and $20 for non-members. Call (514) 737-6551, ext. 258 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Click here to see the event online.