Friday, October 08, 2010

Is anti-bullying education possible?

I've been hearing a lot in the news lately about anti-bullying education in schools. I have to admit that I was surprised when I first heard about it because bullying was always one of those "kids are like that" sort of things that I'd never questioned. But now that I'm thinking about it, I'm thinking that maybe it is possible to change it.

Let's start with the reasons why I'm a little sceptical of the whole idea:

I remember, when I was in elementary school, having a weekly educational program called "Project Charlie." The idea behind it was to have kids play self-esteem-building games in order to avoid later using drugs. And I remember -- as a fifth and sixth-grader -- thinking that this was the dumbest program that I could possibly imagine. It wasn't the usual "stuff grown-ups want us to do is by definition dorky" kind of assessment. It's that the program was a series of social games where the popular kids were encouraged to take center-stage as usual, and no effort was made to draw out the less-popular kids and make them feel included.

As an example, they would start every session by choosing one kid to come to the board and compose a sentence starting with "You are someone special..." Naturally, the popular kids were selected early and often. When I finally got a turn, kids from the class teased me and mocked my sentence. This wasn't surprising -- I expected to be teased and bullied for anything I did in front of the class -- but it kind of left me going "What the hell is the purpose of this exercise?!" And I learned the lesson that the phrase "You are someone special" is just words when it's coming from an institutional program.

Fortunately, in my own home, I was never made to feel like I deserved it. I come from a long line of nerds, so being bullied was just one of those things that you expect to have to cope with, like really cold weather in the Minnesota winter. The coping mechanisms I was taught (or figured out) were the following:

* Ignore it, if possible; attempt to pretend you don't even hear it,
* try to blend into the crowd; don't give the mean kids any reason to notice you,
* keep in mind that when you are older and out of school you will not have this problem.

Following these strategies, already by high school it started getting a little better -- Jr. High was the worst.

But bullying isn't just a question of a handful of bad-apple mean kids. Once an outcast has been selected, joining the group in mocking that person (or at least being obviously complicit in it) becomes a badge of belonging for everyone else in the group. And kids who are bullied will often give back as good as they get, when they get the opportunity. That was one of the more disturbing things I discovered when I re-read my early-teen journals as an adult. My actual teen and childhood memories were full of vivid, horrible scenes of being that outcast. Yet I found that when it came to writing my stories down (in my good little Mormon-girl journal), I was far more inclined to recount the few incidents when I was on the bullies' team against someone even more socially rejected than I was. This is, quite frankly, because I had internalized the idea that there's far more shame in being the outcast than in tormenting the outcast. (This is illustrated a bit in the story Young Womens'.)

As I grew up, I learned from experience that being a bully is more shameful than being an outcast. But I'm sure I could have learned this lesson earlier if the adults around me had thought it was an important and valuable lesson to learn.

Just because Project Charlie was poorly designed and implemented, that doesn't mean that it's not possible to design a good program. And targeting the specific behaviors of bullying -- teaching kids that it's not OK to do that -- may well be a more realistic goal than the rather nebulous goal of "raising self-esteem."

Kids' expected behavior (and their corresponding actual behavior) can change pretty dramatically from one generation to the next. Reading some kids stories from the American frontier, it's kind of shocking the degree to which it was just expected that little kids would fight each other for dominance, to determine which one was the toughest. Parents of the time probably just figured "Hey, kids are like that," and maybe gave them some pointers on how to win. But even if it seemed like "that's just the way kids are," modern society has clearly shown that this behavior is not immutable.

The more I think about it, the more I think it might work. The key is to change people's expectations. If adults see taunting and bullying and turn a deaf ear, thinking Ah, kids..., then kids learn that it's acceptable. But if you train everyone in the school (adults and kids alike) that certain behaviors aren't acceptable, it stands to reason that the behavior will change. (And according to this answer sheet that's the kind of program that works.)

One can argue that this addresses only the symptom. After all, even with no bullying, it's not like the popular kids were going to like me or pick me first when choosing teams in gym class. But, y'know, I could totally accept that I'm never going to be prom queen. Just not having kids shove you and laugh about it or make up a mean song about you for the rest of the class to sing in unison -- already that would make a big difference.

18 comments:

simplysarah said...

It's hard for me to imagine childhood without bullying too.

Especially because it seems to me that child brains see the world in such black and white terms - like me vs not like me, for me vs against me...

Or, maybe I'm just trying to make myself feel better, since I was a bit of a bully in elementary school and I think I grew up to be fairly nice. (lol)

But anyway, it's *certainly* something worth working for!!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey SimplySarah!!!

I agree that part of it really is just the way kids' brains work. It's not just black/white, but also in-group/out-group thinking (along with learning about social norms). I don't think that kind of thinking can be eliminated -- or that it necessarily should be eliminated if it's a necessary growth stage.

As I said above, I don't think bullying is just a question of bad apples. I expect that most kids bully at some point and most grow up to be nice people (and most bullies were probably nice in a whole lot of other ways as kids). Kids learn not to openly torment each other from experience -- as they see the effects. But I think it's also a lesson that could be taught directly: Don't chant that chant about her -- that hurts her.

I think there are a lot of social behaviors (that we just wait for kids to figure out on their own) where we could actually give them a few clues and help them along.

Lord Cataplanga said...

That's definitely not the way kids' brains naturally work.

There were no bullies when I was in school. In fact, I was really surprised when I found out that the bullies I saw on American TV shows were actually real(listic) and not just a humorous exaggeration.

Bullying is not a universal phenomenon, it's probably a cultural thing.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lord Cataplanga!!!

Thanks for the input! I think you're right that so many behaviors that we take for granted are actually cultural expectations that could potentially be changed.

Goldarn said...

My understanding is that most bullying of outcasts isn't from the "first rank" popular kids, it's from the kids just below them who are unsure in their position.

In a fluctuating social hierarchy, I think there will be bullying of some sort from the people who aren't sure if tomorrow they will still be in their position.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Goldarn!!!

I completely agree. The bullies tend not to be the most popular kids, but rather they're the next tier down, doing boundary maintenance -- making it clear that they're in the "in" group but making a show of excluding others.

But I think that's another argument for why bullying education could work. If you convince kids that cruelly, gratuitously tormenting outcasts isn't OK -- convince all the group as a whole, including the most popular kids -- then it stops being an effective tactic for gaining or maintaining your social position.

Carla said...

I think it's really abusive and dehumanizing to maintain anything along the lines of "oh that's just how kids are." How would you behave if everyone told you all the time, "Kids are cruel. Kids bully. They're just being kids."? You're absolutely right, it's all about expectations. I know parents are just trying to comfort their bullied kids by saying "kids will be kids," it's how you tell them they don't deserve to be bullied, but at the same time they're sending a message that children are by nature cruel and abusive.

Sabayon said...

Oh the self-esteem movement, it spawned such a wealth of famously bad programs. By the way, have you read Nurture Shock yet? I think you would really enjoy it.

As for bullying, I think you hit on an interesting point about coming from a family that expects their nerdy kids to be bullied. Perhaps those who suffer most are kids whose parents kind of expect them to be the popular ones. The kids who come home and tell their parents about being teased at school and instead of being told "just ignore them; they're a bunch of insecure assholes", their parents become upset that they are not "getting along with the other kids". I had friends who dealt with both and the ones whose parents were always trying to make them more popular were definitely the more distressed. No idea what that might have to do with anti-bullying education though...

cafephilos said...

Interesting discussion! I always assumed bullying was an universal behavior of kids, but now I guess I need to reexamine that belief in light of what La Cataplanga has said. Thanks for rattling my beliefs! It keeps life interesting, if not always tidy.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Carla!!!

That's true. I think children's behavior really does diverge from adult behavior in some consistent and predictable ways, but that our cultural expectations lead us to make a lot of unfounded (and inaccurate) assumptions.

Hey Sabayon!!!

Yes, exactly.

I'm sure there are lots of cases where the parents are ashamed that their kids are bullied outcasts (instead of being popular). Naturally, that would magnify the horror of it because the bullied kids have no respite -- and instead learn that it's their own fault for being such a [insert random insult here]. I hate to imagine what it's like for a kid whose father was a football player and the kid is a theater geek who gets beat up by the football players.

In my case, my parents' reaction was essentially: Of course it hurts, but school is like that sometimes... We survived it and so can you. It was like the original It Gets Better Project.

I don't want to exaggerate how badly I was bullied -- I saw other kids get it as bad or worse -- but I was unpopular and openly taunted fairly regularly from late elementary school through early High School. It may be because my home was a safe refuge that I grew up happy and well-adjusted in spite of it. And I learned not to let the cruel treatment sink in, and even as an adult, rude treatment just kind of rolls off me.

Thanks CafePhilos!!!

UneFemmePlusCourageuse said...

Goldarn/CL Hanson--Yep, very true. I was often the "weird girl," and while the most popular kids would act quite friendly towards me, the girls who were popular-but-not-popular-enough wouldn't even want me looking at them, which basically just made me think, well then, screw you.

Sabayon/CL Hanson--My parents pretty much always thought I could have more friends if I "tried harder"--if I wasn't so introverted, if I didn't read so much, if I wasn't in the same classes with my one friend and therefore "had to" interact with other kids. But the other kids were all jerks. So I didn't interact. And when I said they were jerks, I was not believed: it must've been I who was in the wrong. And this of course led me to thinking that not only was I hated at school, but my parents couldn't stand me either. And I have a weirdly good memory, so none of this helps me to have a good relationship with my parents now, either. So yes, parents who want their kids to be more popular do actually cause them quite a bit of distress.

littlemissattitude said...

I'm afraid I have to admit that the whole idea that bullying is "just kids being kids" makes me extremely angry. I hate that mindset because it goes ahead and accepts that it's okay for some people (kids and adults) to be tortured emotionally, at least, and sometimes physically, just because they aren't just like everyone else.

In the interest of full disclosure, I probably feel so stronly about bullying because I was bullied in school. In fact, I got a double dose of it because I was not only the "fat girl", I was also the "smart kid". It was awful, and I still have self-esteem issues all these years later because not only was I bullied, the teachers' only response was to tell me that I needed to suck it up and try to be more like the other kids. In high school, that translated into me becoming an underachiever just so that I'd have a friend or two.

The other thing is, it doesn't always stop with school kids. I haven't been bullied much as an adult, but I've seen it in the workplace at more than one place I've worked. It's usually more subtle when done by adults, but no less hurtful.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey UFPC!!!

Thanks for the additional data points!

Hey LittleMissAttitude!!!

Well, maybe we'll succeed in helping people rethink this idea.

mathmom said...

LittleMissAttitude brings up an important point: bullying goes beyond childhood. I think that some of the roots of childhood bullying can be seen in how the kids' parents treat other people. Parents might not be as obvious as kids, but if the parents don't respect other people, I think the kids pick up on that. It's not an attitude (I think) that pops into a child's mind spontaneously (although I could be wrong... =)

I've always concentrated my energy on thinking about how to teach my kids to resist bullying, I've never though about how to teach kids not to bully. This is an interesting discussion.

Oh, and may I second the recommendation of Nurtureshock? I've enjoyed the book very much---a book about children based on actual research, as opposed to theories that make sense, but have not been tested.

Jen Hancock - A Happy Humanist said...

Wow - great thoughtful comments. I have always thought that the primary purpose of school is to help kids learn how to get along with people, including jersk - because that's what you get in real life. I don't remember being bullied, but that is probably because my parents taught me to ignore the bullies and they would find someone else to bully, which is true.

The simple fact of the matter is not everyone is going to like you and some people are going to feel threatened by you and yes, that does happen in adult hood and yes it does s*ck.

But teaching children how to deal with that effectively is often placed on parents who have no idea how to deal with it - so yes, I think there is a responsibility for the teachers to help. But not all of them are good at that and some are downright abusive.

And all this is entirely different from outright bullying which should definitely be stigmatized and when it is universally by the kids and the teachers, it isn't an issue. I don't remember anyone being bullied in my schools. If they were, we thought poorly of the person doing it. We still had cliques, popular and less popular kids, but no real bullying as it reflected poorly on the person doing it.

So yeah, count me as anti-bullying. It isn't a given and is easily combatted by stigmatizing the bullies. That also gives strength to the people being bullied to stand up. The problem isn't them, it is the fact the other person is a bully.

There is some good information about these dynamics being done by the Evolution Institute by the way.

Volly said...

In a discussion elsewhere online, it was debated whether religion plays a direct role in anti-gay bullying, harassment and teen suicide. Someone questioned whether the gay kids were somehow inherently more vulnerable. My response was:

Gay teens are not inherently "weaker" or "more vulnerable" than other teens, but they are much more likely to feel that they are all alone. Kids may be bullied about physical disability or weakness, but they will usually have support from their families, coaches, martial arts teachers or at the very least, peers. The same is true for rocky romances, learning disabilities, being the new kid in town, or family scandals. In all of these, the reason for the bullying is out in the open. The kid knows why s/he is being picked on, and lots of other people do too.

But when a kid is gay or perceived as gay, a lot of otherwise supportive people go into denial. This often includes the victim. If a kid says "My classmates think I'm gay," what can parents say? The father will say "Quit those art classes and act like a man, dammit!" Mom will say "Oh, honey, we love you just the way you are," as if that does any good when the rest of the world appears to disagree. And if the family is actively religious, in most cases they're going to be getting the message in church that they're an abomination in the eyes of God. If that's the case, the reasoning goes, why WOULDN'T the other kids, teachers, neighbors and everybody else think so? Gayness is the ONLY criterion for which bullying gets approval! Nobody would ever come straight out and say "Pick on the fat kid; maybe it'll motivate him to lose weight." Or if they did, plenty of other people would come to his defense. They wouldn't say "Oh, look at the lonely misfit. A good beating will cure that introversion!" Or "Read them a Bible passage about how Jesus healed the leper. Maybe they'll stop having Tourette's Syndrome." But there are religious people out there who believe that "witnessing" to a gay person will change them. A minister might have good (albeit totally misguided) intentions by saying this, but when a teenager hears this, and they have little scriptural knowledge and even less maturity or self-control, it turns into "You're gay, the world would be better off if you're dead." It makes me furious when I hear people like Focus on the Family resist anti-bullying or hate-crime laws because what they're basically saying is "We need our kids to harass these other people so they don't go getting the impression that we approve of them being gay."

In closing here, I'm glad you had family support at home, and wish every kid did. School should not have to be some kind of hell-on-earth experience for young people.

Volly said...

In a discussion elsewhere online, it was debated whether religion plays a direct role in anti-gay bullying, harassment and teen suicide. Someone questioned whether the gay kids were somehow inherently more vulnerable. My response was:

Gay teens are not inherently "weaker" or "more vulnerable" than other teens, but they are much more likely to feel that they are all alone. Kids may be bullied about physical disability or weakness, but they will usually have support from their families, coaches, martial arts teachers or at the very least, peers. The same is true for rocky romances, learning disabilities, being the new kid in town, or family scandals. In all of these, the reason for the bullying is out in the open. The kid knows why s/he is being picked on, and lots of other people do too.

But when a kid is gay or perceived as gay, a lot of otherwise supportive people go into denial. This often includes the victim. If a kid says "My classmates think I'm gay," what can parents say? The father will say "Quit those art classes and act like a man, dammit!" Mom will say "Oh, honey, we love you just the way you are," as if that does any good when the rest of the world appears to disagree. And if the family is actively religious, in most cases they're going to be getting the message in church that they're an abomination in the eyes of God. If that's the case, the reasoning goes, why WOULDN'T the other kids, teachers, neighbors and everybody else think so? Gayness is the ONLY criterion for which bullying gets approval! Nobody would ever come straight out and say "Pick on the fat kid; maybe it'll motivate him to lose weight." Or if they did, plenty of other people would come to his defense. They wouldn't say "Oh, look at the lonely misfit. A good beating will cure that introversion!" Or "Read them a Bible passage about how Jesus healed the leper. Maybe they'll stop having Tourette's Syndrome." But there are religious people out there who believe that "witnessing" to a gay person will change them. A minister might have good (albeit totally misguided) intentions by saying this, but when a teenager hears this, and they have little scriptural knowledge and even less maturity or self-control, it turns into "You're gay, the world would be better off if you're dead." It makes me furious when I hear people like Focus on the Family resist anti-bullying or hate-crime laws because what they're basically saying is "We need our kids to harass these other people so they don't go getting the impression that we approve of them being gay."

In closing here, I'm glad you had family support at home, and wish every kid did. School should not have to be some kind of hell-on-earth experience for young people.

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: Nobody would ever come straight out and say "Pick on the fat kid; maybe it'll motivate him to lose weight." Or if they did, plenty of other people would come to his defense.

You're joking, right?

Jack Weyland published -- not one, but two -- stories about how bullying the fat girl is a good thing to do because it motivates her to lose weight. I know that Weyland is just one author, but he was very popular in LDS youth circles; his works reflected LDS attitudes of my parents' generation and influenced LDS attitudes of my generation. Have attitudes changed in LDS circles (so that bullying the fat girl is no longer considered good, clean fun, possibly of her own good)...? Possibly, but I doubt it.

It may be true that gay kids are more likely to get the super-dose of bullying -- in which the adults, including the kids' parents -- believe that the bullies are right. But they're not necessarily the ONLY ones who get that super-dose of bullying.

And anyway, this is not a competition. We're just trying to understand the dynamics of bullying in order to diminish (and hopefully eradicate) it.