Webster defines bullying as A) “to treat abusively” and B) “to affect by means of force or coercion”. I’m not an expert in linguistics but that seems like a significant difference. It reminds me of President Obama’s speech the other day where he referred to himself as a former victim. Of course, I don’t know the whole story and there may be more to it, but on the surface it sounds like he was experiencing definition A rather than B.
Yes, it’s tough when kids make fun of your ears or your name but can we really compare that to a child who’s being verbally abused by a parent, threaten by other students or having their person physically abused in some way day after horrible day? As an educator, I ask this question because I’m concerned about the focus of our efforts, how we will allocate our limited time and resources and how we best prepare children to deal with the realities they will face in adulthood.
John Boehner, Glen Beck and their cronies say things about the president today that make Dumbo or Babar seem pretty tame in comparison. Considering the current vitriol that dominates our political discourse, maybe we need to take The Olweus’ program to Congress and get them to play nice. Michelle Obama urged adults to “set an example by treating others with compassion and respect and give each other the benefit of the doubt because it sends a message to our kids”.
It’s frustrating to have to endure this endless stream of political talk “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (thanks Wild Bill). It strikes me that Washington is out of touch with the realities of the problems we face in education. Mrs. Obama mentioned that her girls might not being telling her the whole truth when they come home from school and that parents need to be more inquisitive. Lucky for Mrs. Obama, the girls have secret service agents as back up so I sincerely doubt they’re experiencing bullying.
Bullying is about power and control, so the Obama girls definitely have the upper hand. Their bystanders have guns. I wonder what the agents are trained to do when the girls have a conflict on the playground. Do they draw down or do they instruct each party to breathe and play a quick game of rock, paper, scissors to settle the score.
Bottom line, we’re not going to get anywhere until we define exactly what it is we’re trying to stop and get good at it before we move on to loftier aspirations. Dan Olweus, the creator of the program most in favor these days, defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions; involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time; and involves an imbalance of power or strength." There is a major difference between rude name calling and repeated attempts to dominate and control another child.
Both are important goals but we have limited resources and kids who are engaged in these coercive relationships need our help immediately. Our first priority must be to deal with the bully in Webster’s second definition. We need to identify those who are habitually cruel to others, as a way of gaining social dominance, and their victims, then spend the rest of our time teaching kids who to effectively deal with the challenges of human relationship. Those are two different issues and must be dealt with in different ways.
The first requires immediate intervention by school officials, parental involvement and a restoration of the balance of power so the bully is stopped and the victim can resume a more normal life experience. The second requires ongoing, school wide social skills and problem solving education. This two pronged approach will begin the process of healing, re-education and make schools safer. My fear is that we will go too far in trying to curb all negative interactions at school and end up with a policy like Zero Tolerance that will rival No Child Left Behind for its lofty vision but have limited practical applications.