THE ENDLESS CYCLE
Kids learn how to bully from adults. If you want to stop the problem, start there
Let's get this out on the table straightaway: Bullying is not a "kid" problem. Yes, schools and youth organizations must address the issue proactively. They must also react appropriately when kids bully each other.
This isn't the source of the problem, though. Children don't ridicule and harass and ostracize others without instruction and modeling. Bullying is taught by adults. Not from a book or fact sheet; adult behavior and language transmit the lessons as surely as if there were worksheets handed out as part of a curriculum. Bullying behavior is honed to a razor's edge when adults routinely berate cashiers, scream at pedestrians or demean relatives, friends and strangers.
Parents bully their children and call it discipline. Teachers bully their students and call it education [Fighting Words, "Classroom Bullies," AG Gancarski, April 9]. Spouses bully each other and label it marriage. Bosses bully workers and then everyone bullied kicks it around the office out of helplessness and a lack of control over their environment. Many of these people take pride in this behavior, calling it "standing up for" themselves instead of what it really is: bullying taken and given in an endless cycle of dysfunction. They take their tales home and regale the family about what happened at work or in the local grocery store or at the bank, with their children as the unwitting students.
The problem is multifaceted, with layers of subplots. As the former coordinator for character education for a large urban school district (and a former classroom teacher), I believe that educating young people for the future rests first on society teaching children how to be people of good character and positive members of a democratic society. That means all of us — parents, teachers and community members — supporting and helping one another to raise kind, moral and decent people who can successfully participate in society. In other words, people who don't bully one another to get what they want or show their "power," among other things. I was in a unique position to affect change for the better in more than 150 schools.
Teachers today, however, are embattled folks even on a good day. They are facing evaluations dependent on the achievement of their students, with many parameters of that achievement outside their control. They are caught between increasing district mandates for everything, from the minute details in their lesson plan books to their "standards-based" bulletin boards while still trying to teach lessons in reading or math or history or science. Students are often unruly and undisciplined, thus taking inordinate amounts of time away from learning and, thus, achievement.
And then I showed up with the unwelcome message that they must "teach character." If teachers could somehow be convinced that many of their problems with students might improve if schools truly embraced and fostered a climate of positive character, their jobs would be immeasurable better. And bullies would be learning a new way to deal with life. At least it would be a start. We can't teach content until students are civil and civilized.
But that still doesn't eliminate the problematic bullying behavior that young people witness, does it? The principal who bullies the teachers and staff in the building, and the district staff who bully the principals. And what about the coach who bullies his athletes to "toughen them up"? There are few statistics on this, as you can well imagine. Anecdotal evidence abounds; just ask a teacher near you and hope for honesty. They learn to follow the party line closely. All the character education or bully prevention efforts taught from those glitzy curricula binders mean nothing when kids see the opposite behavior modeled for them in the same building.
This is why bully prevention programs in schools will not bring the problem to a screeching halt. The programs — and there are hundreds of them — are well-intentioned and often well-crafted from an educational standpoint. The lessons themselves are worthy of transmission to young people, because they are lessons of character as well as how to deal with bullying. Victims of intentional cruelty must acquire tools to protect themselves. Kids who bully others can be taught that there is a better way, too.
The larger issue, though, and the one fueling the fires of bullying among schoolchildren, is the adult population that surrounds these children, both in school and at home. In the community and their neighborhoods. At the mall. Where are the programs to teach adults how to get what they want and need in a positive, constructive way? Courts sometimes mandate anger management courses, and workplace bullying is attracting more attention. But adults who bully as a way of life are generally ignored, if not accepted and adulated, especially by their immediate social groups. Thus, they have no idea their behavior is aberrant or doing lasting damage to the children occupying common space. Children learn most effectively through demonstration, and the teachers in this case are doing a bang-up job of modeling bad behavior.
Damage is being done, though. The damaged children show up at school to demonstrate how well they have learned the lessons. They belittle, confront, tease, humiliate, push, shove, ostracize and generally create havoc among their peers. Those peers may have learned some basic coping techniques taught by a stressed-out teacher who is forced to do so. Victims of bullying often carry the emotional and psychological scars for the rest of their lives. And the true source of the problem still isn't being acknowledged, much less retooled.
Until we first acknowledge that source, we have little — or no — hope of curtailing bullying in schools, no matter how many ribbons we tie on the old oak tree standing guard out front (or anywhere else that young people congregate, for that matter). Adults are the purveyors of the lessons, and adults must be the ones to teach and then demonstrate a kinder, more humane way of life. We must ask the hard questions: Do we continue to lay this issue at the steps of our schools and expect them to fix it alone? Or do we have the will to tackle bullying at its source? Then look in the mirror and assess.