BACK TO SCHOOL: SETTING KIDS UP FOR SUCCESS / Part II

BULLYING, FaceBook, MySpace, and Texting: How Kids Can Manage the New Age of Bullies

As students face the prospect of returning to school shortly, many are filled with the excitement of a new year, new classes, and new goals. Many are also filled with the anxiety of fitting in, being accepted by their peers, or the possibility of rejection, humiliation, and embarrassment from being bullied.

The Web site www.parentingbook.com presents some troubling statistics:

  1. 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.
  2. 85 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys have been sexually harassed in some form, and only 18 percent of those incidents were perpetrated by an adult.
  3. Young bullies carry a 1-in-4 chance of having a criminal record by age 30.
  4. One in seven students is either a bully or a victim. Seventy-one percent of students report incidents of bullying as a problem at their school.
  5. One out of 20 students has seen a student with a gun at school.

The website www.targetbully.com defines bullying as “repeated, unprovoked harassment of another individual in which that individual has difficulty defending himself/herself.”

“That sounds simple enough,” says parenting expert and author Malcolm Gauld. “But bullying has changed. For sure, the old school playground and hallway stuff still goes on, but now there is the increasing role of RA (Relational Aggression), or girl-on-girl bullying. And the Internet has ushered in a whole new breed.”

Hannah Rhea, a senior from Maine:
“There were two groups of girls at my old school, the really popular one and the one beneath that. I was in the one beneath that. I had a boyfriend and the popular girls convinced him to break up with me. They told him a bunch of lies about me and he believed them. I responded by doing the same kinds of things to them. I wanted them to feel as badly about themselves as they made me feel. I know this effected my self-confidence…I actually felt worse about being the bully than I did about being bullied.”

Further, “cyber-bullying” — rumors, taunting, hurting reputations through Facebook, MySpace, and texting — has ratcheted everything up with devious attacks by invisible perpetrators who hide behind the insidious cloak of
anonymity that the Web provides. How do we address it?

Malcolm and his wife Laura are the authors of, “The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have,” a book on parenting, and The Biggest Job parenting seminars.

“On one hand,” says Malcolm, “my seasoning as an educator makes me reluctant to merely echo the ‘ignore it’ advice that my parents and teachers gave me about ‘sticks and stones.’ At the same time, I often find myself trying to keep the parents from getting overly involved.”

“We have come to visualize a balance,” says Laura. “If the adults step in, take complete charge, and “fix it,” the “fix” tends to result in a short-term bandage. Soon, the problem will once again rear its ugly head, usually when least expected and often with greater intensity.”

The Gaulds feel that even if we manage to install so many controls that were successful in stopping blatant bullying, there is the risk that we can inadvertently fuel two problematic side effects:

  1. We may drive it underground (or over to the web) where things can get especially nasty;
  2. We run the risk that our children will grow up ill-prepared to handle the many challenges they will face as adults when we are no longer hovering like helicopters to protect them.

Conversely, the balance may tip to the other side. Kids may not want to tell their parents or other adults about being bullied. They may feel ashamed or worry about disappointing their parents or making them angry.

“The kids try to do it all by themselves, and a “Lord of the Flies” mentality can form, resulting in an anarchy or gang mentality that creates as many victims as it helps,” says Malcolm. “Hence, there needs to be a balance of kids and adults working together.”

Over three decades at the schools where the Gaulds work with students and parents, much of the problem of bullying has in fact been prevented, by the character culture in place. For example, one of their school inner-city schools stands out as one of the few District high schools with no metal detectors at the front door — a direct result of what Director of Hyde Leadership High School Ronaldo Murray calls a “culture of acceptance within the school.”

Robert Outerbridge, a senior:
“Bullying goes on at every school…I did it. But it hardly ever happens at my current school because people here look out for each other and wouldn’t tolerate it from anyone. Just knowing you’re supported when you need that support and knowing that you’re no longer in a place where it’s more common to be praised for things like bullying is enough to change. Where I attend school now…the kids that bully are not accepted and pushed to stop it by everyone, kids and adults. That is what changed things for me. Being in a place where there is compassion toward others.”

From their experience, the Gaulds offer this advice to help stop bullying before it starts:

  1. Raise the issue. There is no need to wait for bullying to occur. Discuss it in classrooms and groups.
  2. As opposed to punitive actions in response to bullying, create a culture of concern in the school that prevents it. Let students know what is expected of them.
  3. Focus on the positive. Praise acts of support among peers.
  4. Let it be known there will be zero tolerance for bullying.

“At the end of the day,” says Malcolm, “we need a mixture of Mom’s advice from days gone by combined with a modern understanding of “It Takes a Village.” The kids can’t do it by themselves. We cannot do it for them. But we can form a partnership that gets it done.”

Go to Part III