In his New York Times Op-Ed column, Charles M. Blow reported on the experience of his three children and the results of a study conducted by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, which interviewed more than 43,000 high school students. He reports that the study showed:
- “Boys who went to private religious schools were most likely to say that they had used racial slurs and insults in the past year as well as mistreated someone because he or she belonged to a different group.
- Boys at religious private schools were the most likely to say that they had bullied, teased or taunted someone in the past year.
- While boys at public schools were the most likely to say that it was O.K. to hit or threaten a person who makes them very angry, boys at private religious schools were just as likely to say that they had actually done it.”
In addition, he says that, “While some public schools have issues with academic attainment, it appears that some private schools have issues with tolerance. No person is truly better when they lack this basic bit of civility.”
Most of the discussion and argument will focus on whether or not his general conclusions are correct about most private versus public schools. And many people will base their conclusions on their personal experience in each type of school.
But the important point is not about the generalizations. Don’t get distracted by academic speculation about the generalizations. The important point is about the schools your children are going to.
If your children are going to a school that tolerates or encourages other children to think that they’re special and, therefore, that they can tease, taunt, mistreat, bully or abuse people who are different, that’s the situation you need to focus on.
Children need to feel that they’re special and that high standards of behavior are expected of them. The problem is caused by the idea that, therefore, they can scorn or torment other people who aren’t in their group or who are different.
Bullies will target any difference they can find. It’s not the difference that causes bullying; it’s the bullies who find the difference. Of course bullies will focus on race, religion, color, gender, sexual preference, etc. But we all also know examples of mean girls and mean boys who bully people they decide are too tall or short, too skinny or fat, or who have different hair color or hair style, or different clothes, or who aren’t as fashionable or faddish.
Their bullying can range from verbal, emotional and cyber-bullying to physical violence. They form cliques or gangs to harass, cut-out, put-down, torment and abuse their targets. If responsible adults don’t intervene and stop the behavior, bullies will be emboldened to push every boundary and to take power. Unfortunately, mean parents often encourage their kids; sharing their prejudices and hatreds or thinking that popularity is worth any price. Also, bullying parents will protect and defend their bullying kids, like Lucius Malfoy protecting his rotten son, Draco, in the Harry Potter series.
I’ve consulted with principals, teachers and staff of both public and private schools, who won’t ignore, tolerate or support bullying. And we have developed effective programs to stop bullying. In addition, I’ve seen both public and private schools in which principals, teachers and staff look the other way or condone or even applaud harassment, bullying and abuse. Some even think that building school spirit this way is worth sacrificing a few weaklings or sinners.
I’ve also coached families of children in both public and private schools to help them learn how to stop bullies and how to be skillful when dealing with reluctant, do-nothing principals. The “reasons” for the bullying usually vary from situation to situation, but the tactics used by bullies are the similar across the board.
More than generalization to be discussed and disputed intellectually at a party, we’re hit home emotionally by what happens to our children. If one school, whether public or private, doesn’t stop bullies and it’s your children’s school, that’s the one that counts in your life.
But there is one generalization that cuts across all lines; we can stop bullies before we’ve analyzed in detail the reasons why a particular kid or group of kids selects its target(s) and long before we can teach them to have increased empathy and tolerance. The first step is always having clear, firm and immediate consequences for the perpetrators.
If we don’t stop bullying and abuse, we’ll continue the downward spiral of stress, anxiety, negativity and depression; of loss of self-confidence and self-esteem; and of increased suicides among targets who become victims because the responsible adults didn’t protect and defend them.