It’s no surprise that the new movie “The Bully Project” strikes a chord with nervous parents and media-saturated kids. No parent is immune to the devastating impact of teasing, aggression and abuse on our children and teens, and our kids are all too familiar with the rare but indelible impact of events like school shootings and suicides. As many of you know by now, this documentary on bullying traces the stories of five young people impacted by the abuse of their peers. It has been described as disturbing, compelling and “a call to action.” No doubt all of this is true. I am afraid, however, that it may also be the latest fast-moving Bullying train carrying us slightly off course.
I should be clear and say that I have not seen the movie, though I hope to, soon. I am glad that the film is garnering so much attention, and I am excited to see how much momentum we can build on this issue. If anything, this blog post is a commentary on the conversation the movie has initiated, and a hope that we can maintain momentum without losing sight of our goals. And my goal is this: that every kid feels safe at school.
Here’s where I’m afraid the current dialogue about bullying might run us into trouble:
1. Increasing the panicked “Something Must Be Done” Effect. The Bully Project and every story that focuses razor-sharp attention on individuals, brings out righteous indignation in parents and lawmakers. I have seen countless school administrators wring their hands at the insistence of a parent whose child has been bullied. “You Have to Do Something” is the chant. This is code, of course. What the desperate, heart sick parent means to say is, “You have to do something with that bully.” While it’s natural that parents whose kids are being bullied feel this way (and sometimes the answer may be that a child is suspended or expelled, depending on the severity of the situation), it doesn’t solve the whole problem in the long run. This on-the-spot demand (which I predict will escalate over the next few months as more parents anticipate the horrific trajectory they’ve seen in the movie), results in poor decisions and little progress. It’s a bit like stomping on a few hornets while ignoring the nest under the eaves of the house.
2. The “Bully” effect. We need to watch our language. The word “Bullying” encompasses so much now that it’s nearly lost its meaning. The broad definition is a problem — (Sexual assault isn’t bullying. It’s sexual assault!). And the temptation to label kids “bullies” isn’t particularly helpful. Very few kids are bullies all the time. We all play roles. So do kids. My point is that you are not a bully for life—it’s not a static definition. If you want to cut a kid down, call him (or her) a bully. As we ramp up the labeling of kids, we do very little to help them. Not all kids are bullies, but almost every kid (and adult) loses her temper and/or turns her back on a friend at some point. Instead, talk about the behavior. We give kids a chance to learn when we label behavior what it is: rude, disrespectful, dishonest, cruel. If we say instead, “You’re a bully…” we’ve done a disservice to them, their communities, and the kids they’ve targeted, because we've simply labeled them without addressing the behavior — and that label sticks for a long, long time.
3. We tend to ignore how complicated this behavior is. Bullying is complicated—it’s not just the tired cartoon image of a tough kid picking on a so-called “nerd.” Personalizing the targets of bullying and teasing—putting a face to this problem—is good because it increases our empathy and awareness. It also highlights the complexity of school dynamics. At nearly every bullying prevention conference or school event at which I speak, a parent will approach me about their tormented child and begin the conversation with, “My child is exceptional.” Targets may be imperfect, different, even annoying. Not one of those kids deserves to get hurt. Every kid deserves to feel safe and be safe at school. That can only happen when we work in partnership with our schools, and we give them the tools—and time—they need to fix their environments. It’s time we simultaneously lowered the bar and raised it on this issue: don’t tell kids they need to be friends with every other kid in the school (no, not even the girls, please), tell them instead that they need to be respectful of every kid in the school. As one principal said to me, “Classmates. I love the term classmates.”
4. Ignoring Climate. As we try to stomp out bullying case by case, we’re missing the big picture: the breeding grounds. Hunting bullies won’t work. We need to direct our attention to the climate of our schools, and give educators and students the tools they need to turn schools into safe places for learning. Believe it or not, educators and students are in the best position to do this—not so much lawmakers, whose instruments remain too blunt for such a fragile environment. Kids laugh when I ask who will stop bullying in their schools – will a police officer sit on your bus? Will a Mountie (here in Canada) sidle up to your lunch table? Would that stop bullying? “No!” the kids shout – because they know the teasing happens when the adults are not around.
It’s time to focus on the climate of schools and give administrators and educators the tools they need to make long-term, lasting change in the way school hierarchies work. Kids understand these hierarchies, and they know their place in it, too. They also secretly know that they are experts on bullying. They know where it happens, when, and how it feels. They know who gets targeted, and they know who takes the lead. They are in the best position to make the change. We need to provide back up. The interest in The Bully Project gives me every reason to believe that we have the power to provide that back up. We’ve just got to be smart about it.