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How to tame the bullying “dragon”

November 22, 2010

This weekend, I had the opportunity to watch “How to Tame Your Dragon” again with my kids.  We had enjoyed the movie when it came out in theaters, so when it was released on DVD I had to get a copy for home use.  If you haven’t seen it, I can strongly recommend it. The Dreamworks folks put together a very engaging, winsome movie with great visuals and a great story line, based on the book by Cressida Cowell.

The movie was over and I was buttoning down the house for the night when it hit me. THIS movie is a perfect metaphor for what’s working and what isn’t in the “world” of bullying.  Let me explain:

“Dragon” takes place in the mythical town of Berk where the Viking residents must continually take vigil and do battle against hordes of dragons that attack the village, make off with livestock, and generally wreak havoc. There are many different dragons, each more awful and damaging than the next.  The entire town’s existence is about fighting the dragons and every young teen Viking’s destiny is to learn how to be a dragonslayer.

Except for one.  Our hero is named Hiccup, and, unfortunately for him, he’s the son of the village Chieftain. Hiccup doesn’t fit in with the other teens who are training to be dragonslayers, so he devises a weapon intended to bring down the mightiest and wiliest of the dragons so that he can pass initiation and earn the respect of the village and his father.

His plan almost works; he disables a Night Fury, the most feared and elusive of all the dragons, where the handbook advises “Kill on sight.”  But when he tries to slay the Night Fury in a final show of bravery, he finds he can’t do it.  He can’t inflict violence on this creature, and so, instead, he starts a process that leads him to understand what the dragons are all about, to learn why they are pillaging the village each night.  In the process he learns that the dragons are victims of their own: another more hideous “enemy” lives in the mountain to where the dragons travel, and the villager’s livestock the dragons carry away are merely the offerings the dragons must make continually to keep the marauding enemy satisfied and quiet.

The parallels between this movie and anti-bullying and what SocialSmarts is doing really struck me…

  • Just like the villagers who spend so much time, energy and resources fighting the dragons, we have been doing the same trying to subdue the bullying “dragons” in our schools and communities
  • Yet, regardless of how much effort the Vikings expended, or what tools they came up with to wage war, there were always more dragons…
  • It wasn’t until Hiccup tried a different approach, one of getting to know the dragons, learning what motivated them, and then understanding why they did what they did — getting to the root of the “problem” causing the dragons to be so destructive — that they made progress.  In fact, through his different way of looking at things and addressing the problem, Hiccup was able to turn the dragons from foes into friends.

The fighting Vikings represent our traditional “anti-bullying” solutions — programs and policies that try to strike down the problems once they occur.  Hiccup and his approach represent pro-social skills education – a way of identifying the root cause of the problem and addressing it at its core.  Poor social skills and character development is the Monster Beast in the mountain, which, until it was eliminated, the problem of destructive dragons would continue to plague the village day after day.

I don’t think Dreamworks produced this movie with this specific message in mind, but it’s a fabulous way to communicate it, particularly now when bullying and other anti-social behavior and the destructive effects are in daily evidence.  “Dragon” may be a great way to share with even young children the message of how learning to understand your “enemy” is an effective way to break down the barriers that divide you. In the movie, the dragons  became terrific helpers and resources to the villagers once they were able to get along and cooperate, and, as a result, both the village and the dragons thrived.

As we have seen, not enough positive results have come out of our traditional anti-bullying approaches, but we have seen that consistent, continuous pro-social skills efforts not only eliminate bullying in the schools that have adopted them, but also show other positive results such as improved morale for both staff and students, and increased test scores. It’s a different approach, but one that has numerous advantages over the continual fight to manage and mitigate bullying once it’s occurred.

I guess the moral of the story can be summed up this way: the dragons of Berk continued to be a problem until one visionary chose to look at the dragon, not as a born enemy, but as a fellow creature of nature. He went from fear to tolerance to acceptance and, finally, friendship. And, when all the Vikings made a conscious effort to be on the same side, peace reigned.

…and they lived happliy ever after.

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