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Bullying is Bad. Don't be a Bully. (Guest Post)

Today I'm happy to welcome Ottawa blogger and a regular reader and commenter on my blog. Julie (from Coffee with Julie) and I don't always see eye-to-eye, but I think we have a lot of respect for each other's perspectives. What she has to say in this piece is very important. Please read her post and then join the discussion about what we need to be telling our kids, beyond just "don't be a bully".

Bullying is Bad. Don't be a Bully.

rhet·o·ric  --  Language that is elaborate, pretentious, insincere, or intellectually vacuous

It's not politically correct, but I'll say it: I'm tired of hearing about bullying.

I feel like we spend a great deal of time as a society these days talking about bullying and the importance of teaching children that bullying hurts. I think children already know that bullying hurts. That's why children -- and adults -- do it.

Can we move beyond this rhetoric, this vacuous "bullies are bad, don't be a bully," to a more sincere discussion? As adults, the onus is on us to stop what seems to be a deadly spiral of bullying and teen suicide. We need to question what is a seemingly innate human urge to bully, and cut it off at its roots.

I read an interesting article in Scientific American that traces bullying behaviour back through time as well as across species. But more importantly, it zeros in towards a root cause:
“The tendency to bully, or coerce, others is natural and deeply rooted in our evolutionary history, and emerges in any group of toddlers playing freely. However, when cultures condone and in some cases celebrate violence and aggression, while suppressing or demonizing aspects of humanity that are equally natural such as homosexuality, they unwittingly give license to and encourage bullies.” (emphasis is mine)

I could easily make the case that our North American society does indeed celebrate violence and aggression simply by citing the ways in which we choose to spend our free time -- watching television shows about grisly murders, alarmingly realistic video games where the player kills to win, and music that sings of the desire to kill your spouse.

In this same vein, I think I could then convince you to nod your head and agree that our society also celebrates women (and girls) as sex objects. If you're not nodding your head, then perhaps take a quick glance at a few Axe deodorant advertisements or watch a music video or two. And if you're still not convinced then just take a stroll down the costume aisles for Halloween (otherwise known as Happy-Sexualize-Our-Daughters-Season).

All around us, young girls like Amanda Todd, are told that being "sexy" is fabulous. But there's a catch. An age-old catch: sure, sexy may be fabulous, but do not be sexual. Look sexy, but stay virginal. And if you don't, we'll demonize you.

Jarrah Hodge frames Todd's impossible position in the Vancouver Observer piece, "Why isn't anyone talking about the misogyny involved in Amanda Todd's life and death?" The media is quick to place blame on Todd for flashing her breasts on a webcab chat, but she's certainly not the first young girl to do so -- let's ask why?
“There was no discussion of the pressure girls like Amanda experience to measure their worth through their sexual desirability. From her story it sounds like this man had the hallmarks of a predator—he tried to use her photos to blackmail her and yet she's the one who got blamed. This comes from the idea that it's up to girls and women to protect their purity at the same time as all their role models in the media say that you need to ‘get a man’ to be a complete person, that you need to be sexually attractive to be liked, appreciated, and valued. She said the guy she showed off to was telling her how beautiful she was. Given our culture that can be really tempting for a girl.” (emphasis is mine)

Adding to the conversation, Benjamin Freeland blogged about misogyny as the should-be focus, rather than the bullying.
"The bullying of young girls like Amanda Todd is especially troubling inasmuch as it highlights the yawning gap between our society's post-feminist discourse and notions of equality and the harsh underbelly of misogyny that continues to contaminate our social relations. Granted, the Amanda Todds of the western world are no longer liable to be burned at the stake (as they might have been in Europe 500 years ago) or stoned to death (as she might well have been in modern-day Afghanistan or Somalia), but the horrible bullying to which she was subjected bears the same malevolent misogynist streak that motivated - and continues to motivate - such atrocities. The Amanda Todd story exemplifies the degree to which a great many men (and sadly many women) still view women within the passive virgin-whore dichotomy and consider those who lose their footing on that tightrope to be deserving of cruel censure." (emphasis is mine)

So what's a parent to do? Heck, if I knew that, I'd be running the country. Or at least not working from a cubicle maybe. But let's not tell our kids that Amanda Todd's story is terribly sad and that bullies are bad ... "don't be a bully." Our kids know this isn't the whole truth, and if we aren't able to lift up the carpet and acknowledge the full spectrum of complexity -- a complexity that might involve our own capacity to bully -- then they are likely to never feel comfortable lifting a carpet from their own lives and sharing the dirt underneath, whether that be bully or bullied.

Todd is no longer here. But the many (I'd guess hundreds) who watched and participated in the cruel cyber-bullying of Todd still are ... will they understand their role, and what will they tell their own children one day about bullying?

Julie Harrison is an Ottawa-based writer and communications professional. Her blog Coffee with Julie aims to be a virtual version of Central Perk from the tv show Friends (except, you can totally have a bad hair day).
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Reader Comments (28)

Thanks for hosting my views on this today, Annie!

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

Great post Julie.

These bullying conversations we parents need to be having with kids...they need to happen with adults who don't have kids too. I'm not sure how to change that other than to continuously discuss the root causes of bullying in forums like this blog, etc.

What is particularly disheartening about the Amanda Todd story is that she did ask for help but it didn't stop the bullying; it didn't stop her from committing suicide. That is a scary message to children in a similarly vulnerable position.

I was both a bully and a victim of bullying growing up. I know that for my daughter, I don't want her to be in either position so I"ll be sharing those experiences with her when the time is right (she's only 3 right now). Having seen the MissRepresentation documentary at Blissdom Canada last year, I know I will have regular conversations with my daughter about how women/girls are portrayed in media. I want her to question everything she sees so that's she not processing these messages as expectations for how she should value herself. And I want to do this so that she can recognize/know/understand what to do if she is bullied or sees someone being bullied. That's how I aim to lift the carpet and ensure these conversations happen in my family.

Also, the sexy children's Halloween costumes really bug me. I've seen a few in Walmart targeted to the 11-year-old'ish age group and my jaw dropped at not only the costume itself (short skirt witch costume for example) but also the sexy pose of the child modelling the costume on the package! No kid stands like that. Or at least no kid should be standing like that!

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMel Gallant

We need to differentiate between "bullying" and stalking, harassment and the like. Amanda was not just bullied. She was stalked, harassed and emotionally tortured.
Bullting has become too wide of a term, and now it includes a little pre-schooler child being teased by his big ears and someone assaulted through social media, followed around the country and having her naked body's image spread like wildfire.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterExpatB

I do think it is important that criminal charges be laid where they are warranted, as it certainly appears they are in this case. But I don't know how important it is to start splitting hairs and and saying "oh, that's just bullying", which may serve to minimize bullying. Sure, we don't need to call the police when a preschooler gets teased about his big ears and I think we should be able to expect educators to handle those situations with professionalism and empathy. But we all need to take situations like those seriously, as they plant the seeds for it being okay to tease other people.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Mel - I really appreciate you sharing your views here. Like you, we try to open up more "gray" conversations with our kids about media, about news stories ... try to show all different perspectives and encourage problem-solving and critical thinking. Misogyny is a key point in the Amanda Todd case, but so too is the "cyber" element ... no matter where she went, facebook followed her. Many parents are not cyber-literate and in this day and age, it is really critical to understand these technologies and be able to explain the risks to your children (as example, the suspected predator followed Todd on facebook and would "friend" her whenever she moved or changed accounts). A vulnerable young person is just not in a position to be able to handle cyber-bullying and predators alone. Julie

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

Me too, Mel (re: being a bully and victim of bullying). In my post on http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/08/01/the-bully-who-defined-me" rel="nofollow">the bully who defined me (on my bullying experience), I wrote:

I wasn’t an angel either, at least not after that pivotal moment at age four. Protecting my spot, as undesirable as it was, on the social totem pole was important. There were times when I was nasty to others in order to preserve my space. That included being nasty to those lower on the social totem pole than me, so as to not get dropped down to their level. It also included being nasty to anyone that dared try to creep up the social totem pole. We couldn’t risk having one of ours become one of theirs.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I can recall one incident in particular. I was hanging out with some very popular kids and it was a real treat to feel included. I ended up shouting out something terribly nasty to another kid walking by to "up my coolness" in the eyes of the others. A teacher heard me and called me over to express his disappointment in me. I can still feel the deep shame of having done that ... I will share this long-lasting feeling of shame with my kids.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

I would have to agree that the term "bullying" has become overused. As I mentioned in the beginning of the post ... it makes me not even want to hear about it anymore. But it's nonetheless something that needs to be discussed if we hope to help children in the most dire of situations like Amanda Todd. It reminds me of the term "hero," which is used so freely these days that it has started to lose its potency as well.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

Oh, I am not at all trivialising the "teasing" of a small child! But I think what happened to Amanda goes way beyond bullying. There is no way I'd use the same term describing what happened to her, and what happens when a 3 year old get rough on another one, or when a high schooler's classmates make fun of her shoes. Yes, both situations need firm control, but by absolutely different means and for different reasons.
All I'm trying to say is that Amanda's case went way beyond bullying.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterExpatB

In the last two days I've seen two cases of people found out to be message board 'bullies'/'trolls' being fired from their jobs. While it doesn't really make sense as a consequence, at least it is a consequence, considering the legal system's apparent inability to do anything about dangerous on-line interactions. A trend of accountability for previously unpunishable, anonymous action is a step in the right direction.



October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeekay

I struggle with this issue myself. I, also, was bullied and also was a bully. I have had to help my son and his friends navigate a streak of behavior that involved bullying.

What is also missing from this dialogue is one level of why: when children are presented with behavior they don't like, don't understand or are afraid of, they respond the way adults around them respond - they punish the perpetrator (or sometimes the scapegoat.) My son didn't understand that kids perceive bossiness as hurtful. His friends, instead of telling him to stop, responded by torturing him - which ranged from name-calling to pushing to stealing and hiding his stuff. He had no idea why this was happening.

The problem was that these kids saw HIM as the bully, and had no other tools with which to handle the problem. The fact that a huge imbalance existed between the initial social missteps my son made and the actions of these kids did not occur to them.

Bottom line: schools need to offer kids social skills training. We need trained staff at lunch and recess who can keep an eye out for these kinds of problems and give kids tools to navigate them appropriately. In our case, eventually the school hired someone with a background in social work who "got it," sat all the kids down separately and taught them appropriate ways to handle the situation, while holding them accountable for their bad behavior. It was amazing to me (I'd been asking the school to intervene for some time) how quickly this solved the problem, and I realized that the reason bullying is often ongoing is that replacement behavior is rarely offered.

In the horrifying Amanda Todd case, bullying is not an appropriate frame. This young girl was the victim of a sexual predator who should be prosecuted. If Ms. Todd had received appropriate support, the school would have put the responsibility on the criminal and rallied her school community to support her. As it stood, the teens in her school did not have the appropriate tools to handle their own fear of victimization, so they scapegoated this young woman. Not to lessen the pain and horror Ms. Todd faced, but these children are victims, too.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichele H

This is such an interesting case study, Michele H .... I really appreciated hearing how this played out and that it was a lack of replacement behaviour. This makes a lot of sense to me. Personally, I'm unsure what role I feel that schools should play ... I can't see how a school can be held responsible for what kids are doing on facebook, but I have heard this being discussed in a number of places. As for Amanda Todd, I find it so mind-boggling how we as a society have breasts shown on every medium (tv, print, video games, etc) and yet when a young girl shows her breasts she is vilified by this same society.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

Julie, you are awesome. I love this post. I'm sick of the bullying talk, too, and I say this as someone who endured a fair bit of bullying as a child. So much of what is said about bullying these days is naive and simplistic. Bullying behavior is not always as easy to recognize as many people seem to think. I suspect some of the adults who have been posting "stop the bullying!" updates on FB and Twitter would be shocked to discover that former schoolmates of theirs perceived them as bullies.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary Lynn

Peekay - I too found these firing cases interesting, but puzzling to a certain degree (the direct correlation between the person's job and their personal time spent trolling is very fuzzy to say the least). But you're right, it is positive that society is looking to make people accountable for their online actions in the same way as "real world" actions.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment Mary Lynn! I suspect you are correct that many people would be shocked to find out that they are in fact remembered as being the bully (gawd, I hope I'm not!). I also think that parents have an exceptional capacity for denial when it comes to their own children and simply can't fathom that perhaps their own child is bullying other kids at school and that their simplistic "don't be a bully" message is not going anywhere.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

This article reminded me of this blog post:
They seem to go hand in hand. I do think, however, that our children will only embrace this if we ourselves first set the example.

October 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

JJ - thank you so much for sharing that blog post with me. I loved that letter to Chase. It is intensely awesome! And I too agree with you that if as adults our kids hear us gossip or exclude others, they will certainly be prone to do the same.

October 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercoffee with julie

I agree with Michele H. I saw a documentary where they were talking about a school with a bullying problem, which the school tackled by doing exactly what Michele outlines here. They say the biggest factor in ending bullying is to get the children themselves involved. It's so ironic that our solution to bullying is so often an authoritarian, disciplinarian, zero tolerance response, which just continues the cycle of powerlessness and shame that drives both bully and bullied. Children need skills, and they need awareness, as well as a culture that encourages empathy (teaching about emotions and empathy was part of the school's program). I don't think it's ridiculous to imagine all schools implementing such programs and working hard to combat it. And I think it is important for this to happen at a school level, because there's no way you can get everybody's parents. But maybe the kids can bring those changes home. Or at least have a safe space.

My son is only in preschool and I have seen what I consider to be proto-bullying behaviors on the part of his best friend. I would say my son is both bully and bullied, and I have zero control over what happens at school. I'm upset by the things I hear that his friend says and we talk about them, but my son is already more heavily influenced by his peers (at least on the surface), and because I don't really know what's going on - and the school isn't trying to figure it out - there is little I can do, either to help or to guide my son.

I know this is over simple, but I believe bullying happens because we live in a hierarchical and authoritarian (in the loose, non-fascist sense) society that is all about power and success defined by external status (capitalism!). Most children replicate these things, but in a childish way, which is heightened by their sense of powerlessness, because children are at the bottom of a hierarchical system. A lot of parents don't think bullying is a problem because they don't have a problem with bullying. They think it is "natural" or "normal" or "kids being kids". It's a cultural norm, not an aberration. That's why it's so hard to combat. IMO.

October 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Erin, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I love this: "It’s so ironic that our solution to bullying is so often an authoritarian, disciplinarian, zero tolerance response, which just continues the cycle of powerlessness and shame that drives both bully and bullied."

October 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

I think about bullying quite often as i too was bullied and then had to transfer schools only to become a bully (to one girl in math class) at my new school. I think back to what I was going thru when I became the bully. Perhaps unloved and not cared for by my parents. That leads me back to my arm chair psychoanalysis on where this all begins, at home. My 4 year old son and I went to Disneyland the other day (we live close by so we have passes and go often) and we witness all sorts of parenting. This is the perfect place for a perfect storm. Hot tired parents dragging their hot tired kids all over a crowded park only to stand in a line for an hour to get on a ride that lasts all of two minutes. You see all sorts of parenting on display here. Don't get me wrong my son loves Disneyland and I do too, but he has the patience for it and if he didn't want to be there we would never go.

So everywhere we go there's inevitably a young child melting down on a long line. And when you see and hear how the parents speak to the kids there's it's pretty much a no brainer where bullying comes from, the parents. We often see a child melting down and the parent starts yelling something like "stop crying, don't be such a cry baby! you're acting bad! do you want a spanking!? shut up now! you're at disneyland you're supposed to be happy not whining! stop crying you're not sad. etc. etc." We've seen public spanking when the child 'misbehaves' on line as well. one time a girl played with a chain on a pole that forms the line and the mom hit her on the head. we witnessed a family of four on the tram. the younger of the two kids couldn't sit still and the older one prevented this from happening bc she kept pushing him. the parents kept yelling at the young child "that's enough! you better sit your ass down or you're gonna get a whooping! do you want that? huh? huh?"

holy cow. i do believe a good portion of human behavior comes from the home and if you're bullied by your parents and that's the modeled behavior then how do you know how to act any differently? if this is how your parents manage stress by threats and violence don't you think you'll go into the world in the same way? we rarely see a parent empathizing with their child when we're out in public. we once saw a mom with a crying toddler on a line affirming his sadness and saying "yes, the line is long and it's hot. you're losing your patience and that's ok..." but honestly it pretty rare to see that.

i also think parent as authority is the norm. most people i know still feel "mom is in control and you have no say!" type of attitude when it comes to parenting. we know a very popular preschool in our area that have timeouts in a closet bc people feel that's what kids need is discipline in this form. we live in an area where the median income is about $70k and most people have a college degree or higher so it's not about socioeconomics either. it's here in our neighborhoods and within our friends and colleagues. i think it's going to take a sea change at home to make bullying a less of a case than it is now.

October 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichi

Hi Michi - thanks for sharing your personal anecdotes related to bullying. It does make sense to me that if a parent says "stop being a cry baby!" to a child, the child will in turn go to school and call a classmate a "cry baby" as well.

October 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

Deeper and more important than society's views or tendencies as a whole is what we do in our homes; how we treat our children. Parents are instructed to bully their children by various parenting "gurus" (read: parenting shows, books, websites, and well-meaning but clueless friends and relatives). Only, they don't call it bullying, they call it "taking charge" and "not letting your kids rule the roost" via various parent-driven coercive behavior modifiers like cry-it-out and naughty chairs and spanking.

When parents start empathizing with their children, start treating them as the complete feeling individuals they are - right from birth, start working WITH their children about solutions to undesirable behaviors instead of heaping on punishments, only then will bullying stop.

October 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

Hi Kelly - thanks for taking the time to read and comment on this post. I'm not sure I understand your view point though. In the first sentence, you note that "deeper and more important than society's views or tendencies as a whole is what we do in our homes" and in the second sentence you note the heavy influence that society's views and tendencies (i.e. parenting shows, books, websites, etc) have upon how people choose to parent. I think it's also important, at least for me, to make the distinction between (A) teaching children that there are consequences for undesirable behaviours and (b) bullying. One is done for the best interests of the child, while the other is not.

October 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercoffee with julie

Also: I hope the above makes sense ... running on little sleep. :)

October 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercoffee with julie

I don't think I contradicted myself.

My point is that far more important than any societal leanings (from Dexter to Super Nanny), is the way we - parents - treat our children. How we treat our children, is how our children treat the world.

This post isn't about discipline, directly, but I do not think that parents need to generate consequences for undesirable behaviors, as much of the consequence setting done by parents is punitive, and not directly related to the actual activity or behavior that the adult sees as undesirable. Punitive discipline can often make children feel shame, helplessness, anger - all of which they may mimic their parents and take out on other children - thus, bullying.

There are so many ways to help guide children to more acceptable behaviors that value the child as an individual, that aren't violent and punitive, and my point really is that too few parents choose these methods - because it's far more challenging to pause, observe your child, craft your own behavior such that it is a model to your child, and work WITH your child to improve behavior than it is to dole out punishment. So much conflict happens in the home in the name of discipline, it's not a stretch to believe that conflict stays with children outside of the home.

October 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

That is such a good post. Kids gets bullied everyday most especially in school. Hopefully the anti-bullying campaign would help to stop this. Many kids have been affected and it is not helping the society as well. Parents should be active to fight for this cause too since it is our children whose in danger.

October 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLittle Monsters

Hi Kelly, Thanks for coming back to clarify this point for me.

I couldn't agree with you on this more: "it’s far more challenging to pause, observe your child, craft your own behavior such that it is a model to your child, and work WITH your child to improve behavior than it is to dole out punishment."

I personally do believe there is a place for consequences for negative behaviours, but only when done in a manner that takes the time to explain how behaviour is a choice and, naturally, done in a calm frame of mind -- not doled out in anger. Unfortunately, I don't see this happening a lot around me though and as a result, the child looks confused and, as you say, shamed.

One thing that also occurred to me in reading your response is the randomness of some discipline doled out in the home. In watching a number of documentaries on bullying, the bullied often says how the random nature (i.e. "I never did anything to these people? Why are they doing this to me?) is often the most hurtful to them. One has to wonder if children who find their parents behaviour (yelling, discipline, etc) random, also turn to randomly picking on other children?

The cycle of bullying and bullied is such a complex dynamic that I'm sure there are countless influences and contributors, but certainly the chances must be higher for someone becoming a bully if they have never been shown empathy at home. It's impossible to bully someone if you empathize with them.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

Hi Little Monsters - I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks so much for coming by to read and comment.

October 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCoffee with Julie

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