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January 29, 2013

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Given that we saw TV episodes involving bullies on Leave It To Beaver, which is about as far back as my television memory goes, I'd say that as a society, we're all aware that bullying is wrong, and have known this for a long, long time. We don't need posters and campaigns. What we need are parents who are close enough to their kids that our kids tell us about bullies. We need parents who offer their children strategies for defusing or dealing with bullies. Parents who are willing, if need be, to visit the parents of the bully and have a chat. And parents who, if they discover they've produced a bully, are willing to intervene.

I was an obese child, and from as far back as I remember, was teased and laughed at. My mother, seeing my tears, advised me to ignore or laugh at the teasing--she taught me to defuse it by taking away its power, and it worked, for the most part.

We don't need posters or public awareness campaigns to state the obvious. We don't need courts to intervene. We need to parent well. Bad parenting, the kind that produces bullies, isn't new. Cowardly parenting might be, though, or at least more common. It takes courage to intervene.

When my girlie was about 5 years old, a new kid moved into our Juneau neighborhood, and I discovered that the existing wee pack of kids had been throwing stones at her. I marched my child over to the abused child's house, asked her parents to bring the little one to the door, waited for my child to apologize, and then apologized to her parents. Oh, and told my daughter that she had to spend part of every day playing with the new girl and being NICE. They became fast friends, and remain so to this day, even though they're separated by over 1000 miles.

We already know what we need to do. Posters. Pfft.

Agree with you one hundred percent, Joan. One hundred. And we're either employing or prepared to employ every strategy you mention.

Here's my Defense of the Posters: They give kids the vocabulary to call it bullying. When I was being bullied in sixth grade, I don't think I knew a word for it. I think the word was just: I was getting pushed around by some kids and thrown in the mud once and kept from going home once and scared all weekend about going back to school.

When I tried to explain the situation to my dad once, I didn't do a very good job. And he didn't do a very good job of listening. And I took his response to mean, "Sorry to hear you're having trouble, but you're on your own with this, Buddy."

Now that there's a very public bandied-about word for bullying, now that we've declared it the enemy, it may help parents take notice.

(It has other effects too. Every time Scout has a conflict with a kid, Scout calls it bullying; I have to remind her that bullying involves one or more kids exercising power over other kids.)

I argue that the campaign keeps us a little more alert, and gives our kids a better vocabulary: which helps us get more quickly to the work which—you're absolutely right—was ours to begin with.

Because no one does as they're told anymore, people discuss my posts on Facebook rather than here. Occasionally their posts there are so useful I feel compelled to whip them over here (with permission). Here's an exchange between Writing Boots regulars Peter Dean and Jeff Herrington:

DEAN: You can put up any amount of posters but they probably won't change anybody's attitude. If anything, they might provoke a counter-attack (especially as the creative content of most posters is nil). Bullying will always exist. What needs to be changed/helped is the victim's reaction. Many of them have no idea how to cope and may even aggravate the bullying. It's even possible that someone who didn't really worry about being bullied might be forced into thinking they must respond. At the limit, you get the suicides.

HERRINGTON: I'm not sure about that Peter. When theater chains became aghast at the numbers of people who were chatting on their cell phones during movies (driving serious moviegoers to Netflix etc in the process) they didnt tell the serious moviegoer they needed to react differently to those who were checking in with the baby sitter every 10 minutes.

They launched a creative ad campaign that constantly asked people to stay off their phone and with humor shamed those who did not. Now, I hardly ever encounter someone actually on their phone during a film.

I agree that a poster campaign alone isnt the answer and that kids need to be equipped with the internal fortitude to avoid victim status if their parents have failed to do that. At the same time, as someone who was bullied mercilessly for 2 years, I know the victims need to know and feel that adults are standing up for them and they DO NOT need to hear its ALL their responsibility to change/deflect the situation.

I agree totally with Jeff's last paragraph. And I hate this blog format because it has too many stupid restrictions.

As reflected by David's anecdote about the now grown "assholes" still piling on Ed on Facebook, it's not just that parents need to help their kids by being better parents but also that we need to help our kids by being better adults. It's not good enough to take a "do as I say and not as I do" approach. Bullying isn't just something that happens with kids.

Maybe the posters in a school help for the reasons you've articulated, David. Worth a try. But whatever power they hold is undermined when the kids come home and sit down on the couch next to their parents after dinner to watch and laugh at the bullying antics of Jersey Shore or the Unreal Housewives of Wherever or Bill O'Reilly or the most recent band of misfits on Survivor. We can't make bullying entertainment and part of our personal conduct on the one hand and then expect posters to keep it out of schools and playgrounds on the other hand.

Right on, Rueben, though I'd add that it's not only by cheering bullying in popular that parents encourage bullying.

It's by bullying each other and by bullying their kids, and making their kids feel powerless enough that the want to have power over someone else for a fucking change.

This is a HEAVY and deep and probably permanent cultural problem and a human problem. It probably should have been included in the 10 Commandments.

All good posts, Dave, and as a mom myself of a 9 year old (and older kids) it's an issue we've discussed here plenty. As important as it is to compliment our children on their successes in life (e.g., academics, athletics, arts, etc.) it's even more important to compliment ANY small act of kindness on their part. Noticing kindness and using it as a the most important description of your child is critical. And never miss an opportunity to point out the amazing powers of karma!

Good point, MK. And show them kindness as you go about the world. (To the extent that we can pull it off.)

Two thoughts, David...

1. History has repeatedly taught us that Ignorance is the root of so much evil. I'd like to think that, if nothing else, posters and their ilk will raise kids' consciousness about the pain, scars and worse that bullying begets. It's a start. But after that, confronting it through actions (by teachers, leaders and peers) will speak louder than posters or any other words. If it happens, that is.

2. We're finally confronting bullying in our schools, but what about the bullying by grownups and leaders, especially the politicians and pundits? Is it any wonder that, to many of our young 'uns, bullying seems acceptable when they see how viciously political foes demonize those who disagree with them (without ever discussing the issues) and are rarely scolded or sent to the principal's office. I must be really old; I remember when people could actually discuss this stuff with civility and respect. We could agree to disagree, and neither of us were pond scum or pariahs. (Or was that a Twilight Zone episode?)

Fact is, our kids often learn from their role models, many of whom they observe (and emulate). It's all over the media and online, where bullying is rampant and condoned -- not a poster in sight! That's really depressing, and it will take more than posters to change it.

This was a great read, but it made me think that bullying has to be so much more extreme now with Facebook/Twitter. You commented yourself that your third grade self would never have stood up to your schoolmates who posted the picture of Ed in person. It makes me wonder how extreme the bullying must be online as I notice most people are much more vocal and harsh online than I experience when I see them in person. Also, it's always existent. The kid can't escape it, even at home.

I agree with Rueben too about needing to be better adults. I don't have kids yet, and I know I am trying to do a better job of not being so critical of others.

And David, I agree with you that learning how to cope as the victim is vital as well. Response isn't always needed, or even worth the child's time.

Thanks for posting this - it was a great read, as always, and kudos to everyone who commented on this post. A great discussion all around.

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