14 November 2010

Getting a handle on the bullying issue

I'm just trying to get a handle on the bullying issue. It's such a complicated problem, and it's a bit naive to think there's a single answer to solving it, because it's not even just one single problem. The problem of bullying exists only insofar as there many many problems in bullying.

Two polar opposite singular answers that I read of recently: Marshall is on one extreme end of aggressively confronting bullies, while Pearce is on the other end of loving bullies to stop them (but be sure to see also his second and third responses).  There's also a good, balanced, discussion over on Hacker News, but it still seems very one dimensional in understanding the bullying issue.

I don't have answers here, I just want to write down some of my own thoughts to help organize a system of understanding of the issue.  There are, it seems to me, two sets of questions that needs to be addressed, one set centred on the bullied, and one set centred on the bullies.

What problems led the bullies to bully? They weren't born bullies, I don't think, so along the way, something happened to them.  This means that we shouldn't really be thinking of bullies, but on students who engage in bullying behaviour.  Bullies are not terrorists or "enemies of the state", they are our children; educators and parents have a responsibility to help them disengage from, or avoid engaging in, bullying behaviours.

What can we do, as educators and parents, to help students avoid engaging in bullying behaviour in the first place?  This applies especially to students who have had a history of bullying others.  Maybe we should be loving them to death, so to speak.  Maybe it's anger issues, or maybe it's some group mentality, that needs addressing.  Especially for very young students, they may sometimes just be ignorant of how to properly conduct themselves.

Students predisposed, by environment or otherwise, to bullying others, even when adequately taught to avoid bullying behaviours, may slip up.  Mistakes happen.  What can we do, as educators and parents, to help the bullies "fix," so to speak, the situation?  Maybe bullying behaviours can become more like a "one-off" social mistake for some students, if they're taught to recognize their own bullying behaviours, and to recognize that they're not condemned to continue bullying, ie, to recognize that there are more effective social behaviours that they can engage in (especially for younger students, but also applicable to older ones too, so that they don't self-identify themselves into the social role of "the bully").

What problems, if any, led the bullied to, well, be picked on?  I doubt bullies choose their target uniform-randomly across the student population.  Some might argue that the bullied are the victims, that they're not at fault, and so they shouldn't have to change.  That the victim is not at fault is true, but that they shouldn't change is a weird recommendation, and almost seems to be teaching a kind of defeatism, and promoting some kind of learned helplessness.

Which leads to the question: What can we do, as educators and parents, to help students avoid being bullied in the first place? If there's something the bullied could do themselves, could avoid doing, or could change in themselves, in order to stop the bullying, then the bullied wins by taking control of the situation for their own purpose (ie, to stop the bullying).  This is the flip side of recognizing that the bullies are not born bullies: the bullied are not born bullied either, and they're not helpless to try to stop the bullying themselves.

If the thought of asking the student being bullied to avoid doing something in order to avoid being picked on sounds disagreeable to you, consider that the idea of beating hard with soft methods is the principle of many Asian martial arts.  As written in the Tao Te Ching, "The soft and weak can overcome the hard and strong" [1].  It's the primary principle in Aikido and Tai Chi.  It's made use of extensively in Wing Chung.  Sun Tzu wrote in "The Art of War" that "if fewer [than the enemy], be able to evade them; if weaker [than the enemy], be able to avoid them" [2].  Just because the bullies should be stopped, doesn't mean the bullied has absolutely nothing they can do to avoid being picked on [3].

It's true, though, that despite the best strategies, some students will be bullied at some point.  It's statistically bound to happen.  So what can we do, as educators and parents, to help those who are bullied recover from being bullied?  Certainly, students need help in developing resiliency.  Maybe they need help developing a socially supportive network of peers, in addition to adult support, so that they're not socially isolated and alone?

Finally, I should note these questions must be answered twice: once for physical kinds of bullying (eg, shoved into lockers, arbitrarily punched and kicked around, destruction of property, etc), and once for social kinds of bullying (eg, anonymous spreading of false information, rumors, or misinformation; direct social humiliation, etc).

Bullying is a real problem that needs to be confronted.  But narrow solutions that only focus on one kind of bullying (eg, physical confrontations), or only focus on immediate consequences to the one doing the bullying, doesn't fully address the whole depth and breadth of the issue.

[1] Ihara, C.K.  The Tao Te Ching, Kung Fu and Asian Martial Arts.
[2] Quote from here.
[3] Please don't tell me that I don't know what it's like to be bullied so I wouldn't know.  I do know.

1 comment:

Julianna Smith said...

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