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Save the bullies

Recently, the following article on News24 covered a bullying incident at Laerskool Randfontein. Comments on News24 have been disabled, but I’m pretty sure I know what I’d have seen there. There would have been a few posts by people bragging how they resolved their own bullying issue. Half of the rest would have been posted by parents complaining that their children have been (or are being) bullied, while the other half would be by people claiming that if we intervene on behalf of our children we’ll only ruin them. The latter view is expressed so eloquently by our neighbourhood unpopular-opinion-puffin:

The problem with ‘stand-up-for-yourself’

I think that the stand-up-for-yourself argument is a red herring, but nevertheless, it’s flawed enough on it’s own to address in detail anyway. Not that learning to be assertive is a bad thing – it’s just that learning to be assertive in the face of targeted harassment is misguided. Not that teaching our children to overcome problems on their own isn’t worthwhile, but that teaching children which problems can be overcome on their own and which should be referred is also a worthwhile lesson.

First – I can stand up for myself in the face or verbal bullying from one or two people, but I’m going to lose a physical fight. I can learn to fight, but all that does is increase the odds I can face before I lose.You’d have to invest significant time in self defence training to face three men with knives (assuming they haven’t invested similarly), and even then, you’re going down to the one who knows how to use a gun. On a school playground, learning to throw a punch isn’t going to save you from five-to-one odds. Or from being suddenly thrown in front of a car.

Second – Against SOME bullies, the assumption that being prepared to stand up for yourself will make them look for other, softer targets might hold. But some bullies will see that as a challenge. Some bullies will fetch their friends. Some bullies will shoot you. I was in school with a guy who was prepared to cut himself with a knife – I rather doubt punching him to display my willingness to defend myself would have ended well.

Third – even if you win the fight, it comes at a cost. With cuts and bruises, if you’re lucky. But constantly watching your back against a bully is just plain exhausting. To have to do it for an entire school year or more? Torture.

Fourth – not all people are the same. I never had trouble with mathematics, but I know many who did. Some people have the attributes it takes to be good at confrontation – many do not. Sadly, my schools did not have the facilities for kids to resolve their issues with a math-off. Expecting everyone to be able to defend themselves is as silly as expecting everyone to play rugby or take higher grade maths.

Fifth – whenever I consider issues relating to children, I try and translate it into adult terms. My view is that we are raising future adults, and that childhood issues are an opportunity to teach adult behaviour on a childlike scale. A friend of mine was once chased in Prague by skinheads. Are we suggesting that’s it’s okay for skinheads to chase tourists around because tourists should learn to defend themselves? Sadly, some have had to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Are we suggesting that people who report sexual harassment to HR should rather just learn to stand up for themselves? (In case anyone missed the rhetorical questions, the answer to both is no.)

You know all these grown up sociopaths that everyone constantly complains about on Facebook? The “haters”? The “whiners”? The “backstabbers”?  It’s quite obvious that many of us (adults) deal with “caustic personalities” quite regularly, and easy to imagine those same people got away with being bullies as children.

Down with the bullies!

On the other hand, the anti-bully stance rarely seems to address the real problem properly, either. Perhaps because it is still so difficult to protect children against bullies that the majority of the focus is on highlighting bullying as a problem (or on arguing whether bullying should be addressed as a problem at all), and not on how best to address the problem once it has been identified.

Even where bullying has been identified as a problem and where a decision has been taken to address it, the focus often seems to be on how to identify and discipline the perpetrators. How does one gather sufficient evidence to make a case? What is a suitable level of punishment? How does one fend off lawsuits from the offended parents of the bully?

From a site that offers advice on dealing with bullies: “In the end, most bullies wind up in trouble. If they keep acting mean and hurtful, sooner or later they may have only a few friends left — usually other kids who are just like them. The power they wanted slips away fast. Other kids move on and leave bullies behind.” Ha! Take, that, bullies!!

From the aforementioned News24 article: “Everyone who was involved has been identified and disciplinary hearings have already been scheduled for next week.” Disciplined. Hooray, justice!

As the peace-loving kid in school who was occasionally targeted by vindictive personalities, I won’t pretend that the idea of bullies getting their own back isn’t appealing, but…

Bullies are people, too

The point I think everyone always seems to miss in these discussions is that bullies are people, too, and not mere mystery antagonists.

I was once out for lunch with my family, and my son was playing with a group of children, mostly under six. In a Lord of the Flies moment, a group of the boys including my son began to victimise one of the others…surrounding him, taunting him, pushing him, and laughing at him. It wasn’t a dangerous game, but the victim was clearing not enjoying it, and his father came to rescue his son at about the same time I went to scold my son. I explained to him that picking on somebody – especially in a group – is not acceptable behaviour, and we went to apologise to the boy and his family.

I could see that my son did not understand the dynamics of his game – he did not have the empathy to abstain from bullying, because he didn’t understand the impact his bullying had on the child.  (Or perhaps he didn’t have the experience to see that the boy was distressed). But he does now. Super Simple Stuff, as the Australian train etiquette people would say.

At the same time, my son does deal with a bully from time to time at school. It’s relatively isolated, fairly minor, and the teacher is aware of it and addresses it. I try to teach my son that, while being pushed and shoved is not something he should have to tolerate, those actions probably occur because the boy doesn’t know a better way to express his feelings.

I am no mental health professional, but I would hazard a guess that the majority of bullies don’t have the benefit of a parent prepared to teach them about the impact that their actions have on others, as I do for my son. At best, their parents are absent or uncaring, or at worst are bullies or abusers themselves. If so, then further victimising bullies by punishing them is no more humane than allowing bullies to harass their victims without consequence.

And so I would argue that we should absolutely take measures to address bullying in school, and that such measures should ideally focus on counselling the bullies – and their parents.







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