The Bullying Conundrum
This morning two separate headlines in a weekly digest dedicated to issues of bullying caught my eye:
“Popular Kids Aren’t Likely to be Bullies”
“Popular kids more likely to be bullies, study finds”
Ironically, both of these articles are citing recent research defending their respective positions.
I think what this tells us is that we still aren’t sure how to profile potential bullies and their victims. It’s one of the most frequent questions I get when I talk with parents and educators: who is likely to be the bully? What makes a bully?
We all want someone to paint a specific picture for us of why it happens, what we can do to stop it. Sure, we know there are some common denominators of who is a bully. Bullies generally tend to have control issues, low self-esteem, have issues with boundaries. No surprises there. But whether they are at the top of the social “food chain” or near the middle isn’t clearly defined, as we see. Nor, does it really much matter.
Again, all this discussion has us looking at the extreme end of the problem. To stop bullying, we need to look at the source.
What do all bullies have in common (besides the fact that they are breathing?): inadequate or ineffective social skills. Kids that bully lack appropriate levels of empathy, compassion, courtesy and caring toward the people they bully.
You see, bullying is about power. Both ends of it — negative and positive. This point was really made exceptionally well by a principal who wrote to us requesting our SocialSmarts program (now, disclaimer here…I’m not embedding his full quote to serve as an infomercial for SocialSmarts. I tried to find a way to excerpt his comment in such a way I could omit the part about SocialSmarts but the quote makes no sense that way. So, please just take it in context.)
Socials Smarts seems to be the first program I have seen in my 34 years in education that truly addresses the need children have for power. I am not speaking of power in a negative way. But, all of us need to feeling we are in control of our lives. To me when a child is exhibiting bullying behaviors, he or she is expressing a desire to satisfy his need for power and belonging in his or her life. Social Smarts, from what I have seen so far, addresses this need by letting children gain power in their lives though using manners and in turn allows more academic success which is also a power fulfilling.
The power play is two-fold. The bully believes that somehow life is a zero-sum game where in order for the bully to have and be “more,” he/she has to make someone else “less.” The bully needs to wield negative power to feel more powerful. At the same time, victims themselves feel powerless — it’s one of the reasons they become and continue as victims. Then, if you’ll recall from my post last week about the “cultural” aspect of bullying, the rest of the school community fails to use its power appropriately to take effective measures.
So, you see, it does all come down to social skills. When you know what’s expected of you, have the character foundations to make good decisions, understand why it’s important to be kind and generous to others, and know how to conduct yourself, you develop real self-esteem as a result. Nowadays, “self-esteem” does not mean self-confidence or social adeptness. Too often, it’s a fancy label for “overblown ego” and “exaggerated sense of self.” Yes, kids need to feel confident of their abilities, but they also need to understand that they must co-exist with others.
We can continue to try to find the magic clues that help us predict which individual child is likely to turn into a bully and deal with each of those cases as a one-off. That is going to be an inexact science as well as be labor-, time- and resource-intensive. Alternatively, we can treat the root cause of the problem by providing positive social skills education for all students; in that way, we’ll reach the bully, the bullied, and the bystanders all at once. We know that the ounce of prevention is worth the pound of cure — it’s true here as well. Yet, we continue to bandage the wound hoping it will lead to a cure.