Jane’s 5 year-old daughter, Jenny, had been tormented for months by a bully in her class. Even though the bullying girl was the same size as Jenny, she repeated took whatever Jenny was playing with, shoved Jenny down repeatedly and often pulled her clothes and hair. Jane had told her daughter that physical violence was never the answer. Jenny should never sink to a bully’s level. Also, the incidents were no big deal, the bully was probably bullied at home and didn’t know any better, Jenny should rise above and be the better and nicer person, Jenny should try to play nicely with the bully and make friends with her by giving the bully her toys, and to tell her teacher when incidents occurred.
The teacher talked to the bully but never stopped her behavior.
Eventually, one day, the bully grabbed a toy from Jenny and scratched her face. In a fit of anger Jenny pushed the bully down and scratched her face really hard. The bully backed away and cried. The teacher was outraged at Jenny’s retaliation, sent her to the principal’s office and had Jane called.
What should Jane do?
First, what Jane did was to be very apologetic to the principal and teacher on Jenny’s behalf and then verbally chastise her daughter in the principal’s office for fighting back. Fortunately for Jenny:
- Her mother did not make Jenny apologize face-to-face to the bully and the teacher was so busy and distracted that she forgot to punish Jenny in front of the bully.
- She felt so good after fighting back and winning that she ignored her mother’s attempts to lash her with shame, blame and guilt. When she went back into class she gave the bully a dirty look and smiled threateningly at her. That was Jenny taking her own power instead of waiting for someone to empower her.
Jane illustrates how well-meaning parents can be the number one risk factor in converting targets into victims.
What would I recommend Jane do instead? Should kids like Jenny ever fight back?
- Jane should direct her anger at the teacher and principal who hadn’t protected her daughter from a bully. Actually she should have been doing that all along, not simply after this incident. She should have made repeated complaints, in writing, up the chain of responsibility of the school district. Schools can create effective stop-bullying programs.
- She should have found out if other kids were being bullied at the school. She should have rallied those parents, contacted lawyers and gotten the media involved in publicizing the do-nothing principals and district administrators who are a major factor in bullying-caused suicides.
- If I were Jenny’s parent, I’d take her out for ice cream or an even bigger treat. I’d congratulate her on successfully defending herself. I’d tell her that she’s probably going to have to hurt the bully once more because many bullies are boundary pushers. The bully will probably try her old tactics once more to test Jenny’s courage, determination and resolve.
- I’d tell her that as she grows older, I’ll teach her how to fight back verbally and that if she learns verbal martial arts, she may not ever have to use physical methods. But I’d see that she learns these also.
- I’d also tell her that her teacher and principal are cowards and jerks. They don’t protect targets from predators under their care. A 5 year-old can understand that. So Jenny should just be quiet and nod when they lecture her, and she should ignore what they say. If niceness doesn’t stop bullies, then Jenny should get me involved and if the authorities won’t protect her, she must use force.
When harassment, bullying and abuse are tolerated they don’t remain isolated incidents. Instead, bullying rapidly becomes a generally accepted pattern at a school or a district. When adults don’t fulfill their responsibilities, bullies realize they have the power to do whatever they want. Other kids get lured into bullying or become bystanders instead of witnesses. Behavior settles to the lowest common denominator.
Begging, bribery, appeasement, understanding, forgiveness, wishful thinking and the Golden Rule don’t stop bullies. Unconditional love of bullies doesn’t stop their behavior. Relentless bullies are predators. Kindness doesn’t stop them; they misinterpret our kindness as weakness and an invitation to harm us more.
I’ve been interviewed many times on radio and television programs. Almost every woman who has interviewed me was a Jenny whose mother told her to take the high road and never fight back, verbally or physically. But unlike Jenny, they grew up being “nice girls.” Now, they wallow in negative second-guessing and self-doubt, and a little depression and defeatism because they never learned how to protect themselves. Now, they bear some anger toward their mothers.
They’re also unable to stop bullies at work or to teach their children how to stop bullies in school.
But they’re all eager to learn how to stop bullies and how to make school officials protect their children, whether they want to or not.