Raising a Generation of Bullies
by Kathryn Dawson
In the last few years, schools have been cracking down more and more on bullying. Media attention has focused on cases where the bullied student gives up and kills him or herself, and often the reaction is that the school has not done enough to protect this child. Harsher anti-bullying laws have been passed, and schools have enacted stricter anti-bullying statues in an attempt to stem the tide of fatal bullying incidents. At National Sports Academy, bullying has been a hot topic as well; students have been subjected to countless lectures on bullying and stricter rules have been enacted. However, this societal obsession with bullying can be seen as part of a larger movement in the way children are treated. We coddle them into dependence and don’t allow them to develop social skills and coping mechanisms before they encounter bullying. Parents and teachers then rush to intervene in the bullying and realize that they are incapable of truly resolving the issue. Bullying is difficult to address because it’s pervasive but varying, has elusive boundaries, may occur in many different environments, and requires crossing a generation gap. Bullying is clearly harmful, and society’s goals should be to stop bullying, rehabilitate victims and bullies, and restructure our culture so children have a sense of independence, responsibility and empathy.
Tyler Clementi, a student who recently
committed suicide due to gay bullying.
Bullying is undeniably hurtful and countless examples of its effects fill the national media. Victims of bullying are at risk for behavioral problems, impaired performance in school, increased tendencies towards violence, and suicide. Students suffer because they feel continually threatened and unsafe, often at school, and frequently begin to show signs of depression. Unfortunately, these consequences were only seriously considered after the highly publicized suicides of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Jessica Logan, and many others.
To consider the effects of bullying, one must first decide what bullying is. There is physical bullying and verbal bullying, and can have an impact both on the victim’s body and his or her psyche. An NSA student who preferred to remain anonymous said that bullying must have, “prolonged malicious intent. It requires premeditation and motive. Like the bully must have some sort of goal, some desire in mind. They are either threatened…or they see weakness.”
By this definition, bullying is a conscious choice, with an intention to cause some kind of pain to the victim. Bullies are willing to take the risk of getting caught in order to either disarm a rival or torment someone lesser than they are. It is not accidental, and always assumes that the bully is not only responsible for his actions, but is also conscious of the effect that s/he will have on his/her victims. This means that true bullying cannot occur at a young age because we don’t attribute a fully formed moral compass or sense of empathy to a child. The legal system says that children are incapable of truly understanding right from wrong, so how can these same children be able to comprehend the fact that their bullying is hurting another human being?
Considering that society has increasingly leaned towards the idea that children are helpless and hardly capable of working a microwave, let alone understanding moral complexities, is this belief contradictory to our supposedly progressive views? If one is to believe that children understand that their actions can have such severe consequences, then one must also acknowledge that they are able to function at a higher level than we give them credit for. If children are largely undeveloped, schools should aim to instill morals and perspective taking and question why this generation’s children are particularly disposed to bullying.
Before the highly obsessive childhoods of the baby boomers, children were given much more freedom and responsibility than they have now. What child hasn’t heard tales of the depression, when children played in the streets and only had to be home by dark? This was also mixed with the care of younger siblings, and sometimes the responsibility to help parents with whatever work that could be taken home. The idyllic, devil-may-care childhood idealized in Leave it to Beaver was then a pipe dream, as the idea that children would never help with work was considered absurd.
As birth rates dropped and prosperity grew, children were being considered more and more fragile, especially as the almost unreasonable fears of kidnapping grew. In the baby-boomer days, children were no longer expected to work at all. However, fighting was still permitted in schools, and corporal punishment still occurred. Children were not considered breakable, and the idea of the child that could be irreparably damaged was not widespread. The spoiled baby-boomers grew up, and suffocated their children even more.
‘Helicopter parenting’ has handicapped children
Parents created the idea of planned play-dates with close supervision. They intervened in every argument their children had, and so issues that would have once been resolved by children without adult action suddenly became reasons to worry. Children now are less responsible for their social interactions than at any time in history, and adults are more involved than ever before. This removes the idea of telling the adult as a last resort, and rather than resolve their issues themselves, children are often told to go to an adult first. While bringing serious problems to an adult can sometimes be necessary and beneficial, children must learn to interact on their own terms. If a child never learns to reconcile a fight without an adult making compromises and doling out punishments, that child will not be able to cope with future problems on his/her own. The child could grow up to be a bully, solving problems through aggression, or a bullied student, unable to confront the bully without an authority figure present.
We have created an atmosphere where bullies flourish and all students are reliant on adult involvement. However, we have also made adults difficult for students to reach. A bullied student may be initially hesitant to confide in a teacher because bullying carries a stigma. The student may also be concerned that the teacher would say, “that’s not a big deal, just talk to the bully about it,” which carries the double embarrassment of belittling the student’s problem and making him/her a tattletale. Conversely, the teacher could overreact, as is likely at present, and put the bullied student in an uncomfortably public position. While the student’s initial bullying problem may be resolved, if the bully is treated harshly, it is likely that the bullied student will feel guilty and the bully (or his/her friends) will seek retribution. Once any teacher has reacted incorrectly, students will stop trusting all teachers because they won’t risk being similarly embarrassed. NSA has provoked that reaction, despite its close student-teacher relationships, by mandating that teachers report all bullying-related activities to the administration.
Now that bullying has reached epidemic proportions, schools and parents must decide how to handle it. But to counteract bullying, schools need to recognize the problem and outline specific unacceptable behaviors. The term ‘bullying’ has come to encompass everything from “non-verbal body language,”(Oklahoma’s Parent Center) to “fighting, threatening, name-calling”(National Crime Prevention Council). NSA recently sent out an announcement classifying bullying as “deliberately, directly or indirectly embarrasses, threatens, causes harm or injury to or invites ridicule to” another person. Although extensive, these definitions are rather ambiguous. Correcting bullying requires a disciplinary system that is as flexible as the many types of bullying, because students who “indirectly embarrasses” someone should be handled differently than students who injures someone. Schools should evaluate bullying on a case-by-case basis and diversify whom they rely upon to judge the severity of each case. The victim should be consulted; although the school must be mindful that the victim may play down his troubles due to guilt, loyalty, or embarrassment and may exaggerate them due to ulterior motives, anger, or wanting to avoid seeming weak. More than one school official must be consulted because teachers and administrators are biased from prior knowledge of the student. While it is good that a teacher may have a sense of students’ personalities, s(he) is too biased to be the sole authority on punishment. Schools should recognize when bullying begins to become a trend, and try to deal with it effectively, rather than bombarding students with assemblies and aggressive punishments.
Before combating bullying, schools must question why it arises and try to think like children and teenagers. Schools, including NSA, are hypersensitive to bullying because they want to avoid problems, as well as the accompanying liability and their initial reactions are to immediately crackdown on bullying with harsher punishments and find examples to hold up in front of the other students. When dealing with a disciplinary problem like bullying, faculty members seem inclined to resort to ordering students to behave, and occasionally educating them on the specifics of behaving. However, teenagers are not known for their attention spans or their inclination to follow orders. They have the often-irrational need to rebel, so schools must be careful how they approach students. One student at NSA said, “every time [a teacher] tells us something tight-ass, we feel the need to go out and do the exact opposite.” Similarly, at NSA’s recent bullying seminar with Dr. Ray Havlicek, the atmosphere became immediately defensive and then angry when students felt Dr. Havlicek was yelling at them. Although he was logical and ultimately correct, students couldn’t take advantage of his expertise because they were too busy bristling at the rough treatment. When talking about bullying, faculty at NSA must avoid alienating students by being too authoritative. An unsympathetic approach would force bullying further underground and set students against faculty.
A recent Nationial Institute of Health study showing theseverity of depression in various bullies and victims.
Bullies may have complex motives for their actions and need more than punishment to help them change. According to Medscape Pediatrics, bullies, with the exception of cyberbullies, usually exhibit signs of depression equivalent to those of their victims. Without intervention, bullies are also more likely to engage in other violent behaviors, including carrying a weapon and fighting, according to the National Institute of Health. While a simple Google search will beat the subject of bullying into the ground, there are startlingly few articles on the rehabilitation of bullies, which should be key to creating a more peaceful environment. The initial goal should be to punish and remove bullying, but the long-term goal still needs to remain helping the victims and the bullies. A bully will not stop bullying because of a school suspension and a victim will not feel safe until the bully is removed from the school
NSA must approach bullying differently than other schools because of the community relationships but chiefly because NSA bullying is rarely malicious. While it could be argued that everybody thinks they’re an exception, NSA’s familial dynamics really seem to override most bullying behaviors. The only apparent example of bullying at NSA is boys wrestling to establish a pecking order, which is a social custom and therefore more difficult to change. Since this bullying isn’t spiteful, it’s habitual, students cannot be shocked into new behavior patterns.. One NSA student said, “change is necessary” but “they’ve gone from one extreme to the other and I feel like students at NSA, particularly the boys, they don’t understand that the old way isn’t acceptable anymore…they just don’t know what to do, that’s what provokes such extreme responses.” Bullying at NSA is be equally harmful but isn’t stemming from a conscious decision to hurt someone; it’s a method of establishing a social hierarchy, ‘the old way’. Students cannot instantaneously change their social interactions and will not react well to punishments and abrupt changes in policy. To be effective, a new policy has to be considerate of the student population and especially careful to be consistent in procedure, definitions, regulation and punishment of bullying. NSA must guide the students into a new custom without alienating them.