In a previous article, “Best Methods to Stop Bullying in Schools,” I came out strongly against principals, teachers and school programs that focused only on stopping bullies by understanding, education, compassion, forgiveness and therapy of bullies, without any effective effort to stop the bullying. They had no strong and firm consequences for harassment, taunting, teasing or physical abuse; or for any of the forms of bullying – overt, covert, verbal, emotional, physical and cyberbullying. Some commentators challenged my views – they insisted that changing the attitudes of bullies should be the major goal of educators and they quoted the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Golden Rule.
These well-meaning commentators, using the parable of the Prodigal Son, said that our hearts should go out to the poor bullies. They imagined these abusive predators as having horrible childhoods that caused them to turn to bullying to gain control and power, and to boost their confidence and self-esteem. Just like the Prodigal Son, bullies don’t know any better.
These commentators seemed to think that, just like the Prodigal Son, saving the bully is more important than the feelings of the targets. They think the bully was more of a victim of his upbringing than the people he was victimizing. They seemed to think that we had an either-or-choice: to focus on understanding, love and forgiveness in an effort to educate bullies or to punish them, make them feel bad and drive them further into anti-social ways of acting.
Therefore, they claimed that all efforts should be directed at educating and rehabilitating bullies.
I disagree. The choice between educating bullies or protecting targets is a false choice. I think we must use both approaches and in a specific sequence:
- Stop bullies in their tracks with swift, firm, strong consequences for bullying.
- With compassion; educate, therapeutize and rehabilitate bullies.
Then, we’ll see which bullies rapidly change their behavior and which will remain narcissistic bullies.
I do not think the one – the bully or Prodigal Son – is more important than the many – the targets of bullying and abuse. I prefer Mr. Spock’s judgment, from the original Star Trek, “Never sacrifice the many for the sake on the one.” I’d rather protect the many targets of bullying so they’re not converted into victims. I worry first about the many precious psyches of the targets before I worry about the few damaged psyches of the bullies. First, create a safe environment for the targets. Then rehabilitate the bullies, if possible.
The better analogy is the abusive husband and the battered wife – or vice versa. Would those commentators, who have such tremendous sympathy for bullies, tell battered women to:
- Endure as many beatings as it takes while enough psychotherapy is done to change an abusive husband’s attitudes?
- Endure as much abuse as it takes until the battering husband is convinced to try other methods of interaction?
- Let their children be tormented for as long as it takes to teach the bully new skills of dealing with his frustration at not getting what he wants and for him to master new skills of communication and negotiation?
We protect the targets. We remove the bully. We don’t let the target be subjected to repeated victimization while we get swayed by our sympathy for the abuse we think the batterer must have had when he was a child.
I think that, in general, the first step in changing the behavior of bullies is to have strong consequences. Then education, compassion and therapy have a chance. But at least, during that time targets are protected and safe.