Two articles have been stimulated by the publishing of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.”  One is in the Wall Street Journal by Mr. Tough, “Opting Out of the 'Rug Rat Race'” and the other is by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, “Reading, Math and Grit.” Both ask, “Which is more important to student success, character or cognitive skills, and what kind of interventions might help children succeed?

The whole idea behind this way of thinking is flawed.  Parents who follow it will jump on a new fad and, once again, be overwhelmed by anxiety.

I challenge some of the ideas behind both the old and the new ways of thinking such as that:

  1. One set of characteristics – either cognitive skills in math, language, science, etc. or personality/character traits like grit, persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition – are much more important than the other.
  2. We can figure out what all the factors are and assign percentages to each based on its contribution toward success.  These factors will be reliable determinants of success.
  3. We can improve the success rate of individuals by thinking and discussing ‘why” some children succeed while others don’t in terms of abstractions and generalizations such as “American parenting,” “affluent parents,” “parental anxiety,” “over-protective parents,” “permissive parents,” “character,” cognitive skills.”
  4. We must actively intervene to ensure that our children learn the most important attributes.  Based on the latest research, we can develop methods to teach these to all children so they’ll be successful.

When I think of what’s necessary for success, I think not of a list of factors with percentages of importance attached to each factor, but of a target with a bull’s eye in the center containing of all the abilities we want our children and ourselves to have.  Did anyone really think that mastering cognitive skills without developing grit would lead to success?  Or does anyone think the opposite now?  Both areas are necessary and the appropriate mixture of characteristics depends on the individual.

In general, grit matters no matter what you do, but what it takes to succeed as a lawyer can be very different from what it takes to succeed as a genius programmer or a fashion designer.  What it takes to succeed as a factory worker, a small business owner or a bus driver may be very different mixes.  What it takes to participate in team activities and in individual activities can be different.  What it takes to face harassment, bullying and abuse can be different depending on who’s doing it.

All these discussions are in the abstract and general.  What we can do something about is in the moment-to-moment reality of us and our families.

How many of us really tried to keep our kids from experiencing any failure and disappointment?  How many of us really covered up each of their mistakes and failures so that blame was never on the actions of our children?  Most of us try to teach the lessons of life to our children.

Each child is different.  Each child learns some particular lessons the hard way, while other kids get those same lessons immediately, but learn other lessons the hard way.  And some just never seem to learn, no matter how hard we try.  Most kids learn the universal lessons despite the times we mess up the opportunities to teach.

My conclusion about these ruminations is to stop thinking in abstractions and generalizations, stop trying to figure out the correct way that will guarantee success for an average person or a middle class person or an affluent person or a disadvantaged person.  Instead, focus on our individual kids and ourselves.

We know the obvious – both grit/character/personality and cognitive skills matter.  Which ones do we need to develop more?  Which ones does each individual kid need to develop more?  Which kids need to develop more grit?  Which kids need to learn when to stop beating their heads against which brick walls?

We also know that if we protect our children from hurt, pain, mistakes, failures and realistic estimations of their talents, we’ll promote arrogance, weakness, hesitation and defeatism.  Facing challenges is the only way we learn to face challenges and to overcome them and our weaknesses.

I’ve focused on middle and upper class parents and kids instead of disadvantaged kids because I think most of the people who read this blog fall into those categories.  But I’d say the same to everyone.

If you’re still protecting your children or if they think they know best or they’re entitled to do what they want, change your approach immediately.

Paul Tough ends his article with “Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.”  I agree whole-heartedly.

Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps.  We can design a plan that fits you and your situation.  And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.

Paul Tough ends his article with “Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even 

more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.”  I agree whole-heartedly.

Dealing with employees who miss deadlines or whose work is below standard is relatively easy and straightforward.  Dealing with persistently negative employees who don’t make big mistakes or openly violate organizational policy is tougher for many supervisors. But it’s important that you deal swiftly and firmly because negative employees create suspicion, tension, cliques and hostility, and undermine leadership.

To read the rest of this article from the Dallas Business Journal, see: How to deal with persistently negative employees http://dallas.bizjournals.com/dallas/stories/2006/01/30/smallb3.html

Most insidious are negative employees who come to work on time each day and are good workers technically, so traditional performance evaluations will grade them adequate or even better. They use negativity for bullying to get control.

Sally’s behavior is typical – see article:

Sweet and placating supervisors excuse Sally’s behavior because each incident is too minor to make a big deal about, because “that’s just way she is,” or because they hope that if they give Sally what she wants, she’ll repay their kindness with a positive attitude and support.  But Sally is never satisfied.  She’s just a bully.

Inexperienced supervisors don’t know how to intervene effectively or are afraid that Sally will accuse them of harassment.  They feel isolated and helpless even though they’re supervisors.

But if you aren’t willing to face the difficulties and learn to act skillfully, Sally will take control of your team.  You don’t deserve to be a supervisor.

Some suggestions for dealing with a “Sally” in your organization – see article:

If Sally leaves but later wants to return, don’t allow that possibility.  If you waffle, you’ll be perceived as weak and no one will believe you in the future.

If you manage negative supervisors, you must act more swiftly because each person on your supervisory team affects more people than a frontline employee does.

You’ve seen the sign, or some variation of it: “Clean up your mess.  Your mom doesn’t work here.”  It’s an obvious reminder to the slobs among us that they’re a real problem. But there’s a flip side to this problem: the office “mom” – male or female – who cleans up after the slobs.  That may sound like a good thing, but office moms create their own set of problems.

Office moms come in two flavors; those who clean up the physical debris left by others and “e-moms” who try to clean up other people’s emotional garbage.

To read the rest of this article from the Cincinnati Business Journal, see: Office moms, slobs, princesses stir up distracting soap opera http://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/stories/2007/06/25/smallb5.html

There are people who leave physical messes and people who leave emotional messes like hot-tempered, hostile staff no one wants to tangle with and bosses who want go-fers to take care of their personal, menial chores.

The fact is some people are lazy, uncaring and irresponsibleThey act like overgrown children or arrogant princes/princesses expecting to be waited on.  You have to decide which values matter most.  Is it leaving people alone, because of politeness or fear, or setting and enforcing communal standards of behavior, despite resistance?

If you ignore slobs, resentment will grow among staffers who get stuck cleaning up other people’s messes.  Weak staff will also want slob privileges.  Resentment will destroy productivity.

Volunteer office moms clean up other people’s physical messes.  Acting out of courtesy or martyrdom, office moms appear to be benevolent.  But even if they’re happy cleaning up after others, there’s an insidious side effect that can cost more than the immediate benefits.

When someone caters to grown “children,” the latter tend to remain children.  Lack of responsibility about break rooms usually leads to lack of responsibility about team effort.  It spreads to messy, worthless paperwork and incomplete projects.

The most insidious and destructive side of the slob-mom equation are people who dump emotional garbage around the office (e-slobs) and their partners, e-moms, who listen sympathetically and try to clean up the messes.  E-slobs continually vent their hurt, frustration, complaining and criticism.  They want support for personal agendas.

One variant of e-slobs are bosses who want emotional voids filled by endless praise and unconditional love.  They often create loyalty tests for you to prove your love.  For example, they’ll demand that you miss important family events in order to wait on them over trivial matters.

E-moms encourage melodrama and make feelings more important than productivity.

Of course, you want your staff to care about one another, but e-moms and e-slobs take a tremendous toll on overall productivity.  You need to intervene quickly if you have a slob team.

E-moms, e-slobs and princesses create the same symptoms.  Performance decreases.  Behavior sinks to the lowest level tolerated.  Narcissists, incompetent, lazy, gossip, back-stabbing, manipulation, hostility, crankiness, meeting sabotage, negativity, relentless criticism, whining, complaining, cliques, turf control, toxic feuds, harassment, bullying and abuse thrive.  Power hungry bullies take power.

Don’t be a slob or dependent boss who needs an office mom.  Don’t look for a warm, soft, friendly shoulder on which to cry at work.  And don’t waste work time on melodrama.  Handle your feelings on your own time.

On the flip side; don’t be an office mom.  You won’t make things better being a peacemakerBegging, bribery, endless praise, appeasement, endless ‘second chances,’ unconditional love and the Golden Rule usually encourage more harassment, bullying and abuse.  Stop emotional bullies and stop bullying.

Work is about work, not soap opera.  Stick to that agenda and you’ll be better off.

High standards protect everyone from unprofessional behavior.  You can learn to eliminate the high cost of low attitudes, behavior and performance.

All tactics are situational.  Expert coaching and consulting can help you create and implement a plan that fits you and your organization.

You probably don’t want an angry, confrontational, bullying boss.  But, do you want the other extreme – a conflict-avoidant boss? I vote, “No.”  Conflict-avoidant bosses create breeding grounds for passive-aggressive employees and self-appointed tyrants.

For example, Helen’s boss is nice and sweet.  And that’s her problem.

To read the rest of this article from the Austin Business Journal, see: Bosses who avoid conflict create a big mess http://www.bizjournals.com/austin/stories/2007/07/23/smallb3.html

Larry is always thoughtful and considerate.  He tries to agree with everyone.  Although he inspects each employee’s results and asks penetrating questions, he won’t tell them what they must do.  If two of his staff disagrees, he won’t intervene and make a decision, or force them to resolve the issue.

Helen has frequent and critical deadlines, but in order to do her job she needs information supplied by Lindsay, another employee in Larry’s department.  Lindsay says she’s too busy to give Helen the necessary information within the agreed-upon timelines.

Helen asks and asks but nothing seems to work.  She tries begging, twisting Lindsay’s arm and even explaining her predicament at team meetings.  She tries every communication and management technique her friends and human resource professionals suggest.  Lindsay simply goes on her merry way and stonewalls Helen.  She’s a sneaky bully.

In public, Lindsay always agrees to do that part of her job but then simply ignores the commitment.  In private she says Helen’s not important enough.  She doesn’t like Helen and she’s going to sabotage her.  In one-to-one meetings with Larry, she undercuts Helen’s needs, communication skills and performance.

Larry says he can’t do anythingIf he tried to force Lindsay, it’d create conflict – and he doesn’t want confrontationLarry is so sweet and nice.

Larry avoids conflict with Lindsay but creates conflict with Helen.  He’s upset with not getting what he needs from Helen but not upset enough to break the deadlock.  He’s more afraid of Lindsay than he is of Helen.  Lindsay knows she’s secure.  She has no pressure to serve Helen and no consequences for resisting.

There are numerous variations on this theme but they all lead to the same symptoms.  Performance decreases.  Behavior sinks to the lowest level tolerated.  Narcissisism, incompetence, laziness, gossip, back-stabbing, manipulation, hostility, crankiness, meeting sabotage, negativity, relentless criticism, whining, complaining, cliques, turf control, toxic feuds, harassment, bullying and abuse thrive.  Power hungry bullies take power.

Absentee bosses – whether they’re waiting for retirement, have distracting personal concerns, are mentally tuned out or are cowards – create sanctuaries for unprofessional behavior.  When there’s a vacuum of authority, the most aggressive, ruthless and controlling people are drawn in to fill it.  It’s like the worst behavior of children coming out when their teacher leaves them alone for the day.

Conflict-avoidant bosses don’t implement decisions necessary for overall productivity because they won’t face resistant people and get them to do what’s necessary.

If you avoid facing someone who’s unhappy, you’re abdicating your responsibility as a leader.  You’ll probably live to regret the pain caused by abandoning your duty.  Your good employees certainly will regret it.

High standards protect everyone from unprofessional behavior.  You can learn to eliminate the high cost of low attitudes, behavior and performance.

All tactics are situational.  Expert coaching and consulting can help you create and implement a plan that fits you and your organization.

If you have a “leaper” and a “stepper” on your staff who are at war with one another, you have a big problem that needs immediate attention. Leapers are people with fast biological clocks.  Steppers approach the world slowly and cautiously.  Their very different views of the world can lead to disastrous results if they’re put into roles that make them dependent on one another to complete tasks.

For example, Larry the leaper and Steve the stepper are on the same technical team.

To read the rest of this article from the Charlotte Business Journal, see: Stop battles between ‘leapers’ and ‘steppers’ http://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/stories/2008/12/08/smallb4.html

The more invested they are in the rightness of their styles, the faster the gulf between them will widen until their differences become irreconcilable.  When they go to war, they’ll both look to you as their manager to punish the other (guilty) person and to excuse their own transgressions.

The war will feel like a crusade and become toxic through out the office.  They’ll misunderstand and see negativity or evil intent in almost every action and email.  They’ll begin to harass, bully, abuse and sabotage, and attempt to line up supporters.

Intervene as soon as possible, before hostilities engulf the whole office.

Be careful yourself; don’t empower one to be the controlling bully on your team.  Don’t harass, coerce or force your preferred pattern on everyone.

Learn what you can do to eliminate the high cost of bullying, aggressive low attitudes of managers and staff.

All tactics are situational.  Expert coaching and consulting can help you create and implement a plan that fits you and your organization.

Newspaper videos show a suburban Dallas teacher watch one of his high school students get beaten by another student.  This was not an isolated incident.  That student was targeted for months.  Since Dallas doesn’t have a policy, teachers are on their own in deciding what to do.  In that environment, do you think that this is an isolated incident?  Not likely.  Is this only a problem for Dallas schools?  Not likely. I have a lot of sympathy for the teacher (even though he was a relatively large man) and even more for the target, who’d been turned into a victim by school-system adults who were irresponsible.  Don’t focus only on the teacher; focus on all the adults in the Dallas school system who abandoned that kid – from board members to principals and teachers and the teachers’ union.

Everyone involved in schools knows there’s a problem.  Everyone points fingers at everyone else but no one takes the obvious actions.  Why wait until there’s another killing or another suicide before they act?

Sometimes I get mad enough to want to see the bullies and the adults’ people’s pictures in the post office among the most wanted, or on television, so we can recognize the slackers when we see them at the supermarket.  Who do I fault?

  • Legislators and school board members: How can they not have laws and policies?  I know there are lots of problems writing good laws and crafting effective policies, but if they’re not up to the task, resign and let us get some adults who can.  We all know that if their kids were targeted, they’d spring into action.
  • The teachers’ union: I’m appalled that the union isn’t leading the fight (read, “spending their lobbying dollars”) to make legislators pass laws and school boards implement strong policies to empower and protect teachers when they intervene.  They have all the evidence they need to act.
  • According to the article in the Dallas News, “Rena Honea, president of Dallas teachers association Alliance-AFT, says, ‘Teachers have intervened in the past.  They have been injured.  They have not been able to return to work.  They have been reprimanded for intervening.  So there is a huge question mark as to what's truly appropriate.  Teachers who have intervened in the past have found themselves on the ground, suffering from sometimes serious injuries, a 2008 story by Tawnell Hobbs found.  She found that assaults by students on Dallas ISD employees and volunteers had more than doubled over a 5-year span from 147 incidents in 2002-03 to 312 in 2006-07, according to district statistics.
  • Of course, bullies don’t respect adults who don’t maintain lines of civil behavior.  Of course, bullies will attack people, even adults, they think can’t protect and defend themselves.
  • Principals and teachers: They’re stuck, hanging out to dry on their own, unprotected by their employers (school boards) and by their union.  That teacher in Seagoville, Texas was risking his career and his personal life if he intervened.  The attacker could have beaten him.  The attacker and his parents could have sued him.  No one is protecting him.  He’s in a no-win situation.  How come the school district doesn’t have a clear, strong program that requires principals and teachers to act?
  • The bully and his parents: Have his parents done anything to teach their child?  Has the kid never learned any better?  How come the parents haven’t come forward to apologize or ask the police to prosecute their child?  Are the adults in the school system so afraid of being sued that they’ve abandoned our children?

Harassing, bullying, abusing and beating kids are terrible acts.  Irresponsible adults who have good reasons, rationalizations, excuses and justifications for not intervening are even worse.  They convert targets into victims.

Targets can resist and get help from responsible adults.

Victims are unprotected, helpless and isolated.  When victims grow up:

The next articles will deal with what we, as parents, can do to make sure this doesn’t happen to our children; especially what we can do during the summer.

But the general take-home for parents is that all tactics depend on the situation – the people and the circumstances.  So we must plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.

If your children are the targets of bullies and school officials aren’t protecting them, you need to take charge.  With expert coaching and consulting, we can become strong and skilled enough to overcome principals and other officials who won’t do what’s right.

 

“How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” have many examples of children and adults commanding themselves and then stopping bullies.  For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).

Sometimes toxic parents think they have us over a barrel even after we’ve grown up, gotten physically and financially independent, and started our own family.  They count on our loyalty to some ideal of “family” no matter how badly they treated and still treat us.  They count on our self-bullying and guilt.  They count on us still trying to jump through their hoops to win their love and approval...  They count on our fear that they’ll manipulate the rest of the family into thinking we’re ungrateful and bad.  And they often count on our enduring the verbal and emotional abuse so we can inherit our share of their fortune. Of course, I’m talking about those toxic parents who are still blaming everything on us and abusing us because “It’s your fault” or “You are selfish, ungrateful and don’t deserve any better” or “It’s your duty to do what they want in their old age.”  They’re the toxic parents who know our every weakness and sensitivity, and still poke them hard when they want too; still find fault with every little thing we do; still compare us unfavorably to someone else or to their standards; still criticize, belittle and harass us and our spouse and our children in public or they’re the sneaky ones who criticize, demean and denigrate us in private but pretend they love us in public so everyone thinks they’re wonderful, loving parents.

Of course, we’ve tried everything we can think of, but the negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame, bullying and abuse haven’t stopped.  We’ve tried to do exactly what they want, but it’s never enough.  We’ve apologized and pleaded with them to stop, but that just makes them act nastier.  We’ve gotten angry and threatened not to see them, but they broke down in such tears of distress we felt guilty or they blamed on us even more or they acted nice for a few minutes but, when we relaxed, they attacked us more about something different they didn’t like.

So what can we do now?

  1. For the sake of peace and quiet in the whole family, we could keep trying to endure the abuse while begging them to stop.  After all, we never know; if we only kept trying, if we only did enough, they might change.  Also, they might leave us in the will.  And it’d be our fault if we quit too soon.  Many people fly low until they have children and see their toxic parents either criticizing and emotionally abusing their children or belittling and criticizing them while being sweet to the grandchildren.
  2. We might continue objecting and arguing; enduring our frustration and anger.  Usually this tactic repeats endlessly and often spirals out of control.  Relentlessly toxic parents won’t admit they’re wrong and give up.  Eventually they’ll escalate and cut us out of the will.
  3. We might try withdrawing for a while; not seeing them, telling them we won’t return emails and calls, and then carrying through.  People usually shift from the first two tactics to this one when they see the effect of their toxic parents on their own children.  This tactic sometimes convinces nasty, mean, bullying parents that they’d better change their ways or they’ll lose contact with their grandchildren.  But the relentlessly toxic parents don’t care.  They’re sure they’re fine and they’re sure they’ll win if they push hard enough, like they’ve always won in the past.  So they don’t change and we go back to arguing or we give up or we finally respond more firmly.
  4. The next step is to withdraw for a long time, maybe forever – no contact.  It’s sad but we have to protect the family we’re creating from our own predatory parents.  It’s usually both scary and very exciting.  Most people, despite any guilt they feel, also feel a huge surge of relief, as if a giant weight or a fire-breathing dragon has been removed from their shoulders.  Our spouse and children may celebrate.  Get out of town, go on a vacation, turn the phones and email off.

What to expect and how to respond?

  1. They’ll attack when we withdraw.  Expect them to make angry calls and send hostile emails.  Save these on an external drive or a cheap recorder before deleting them.  They want to engage us, so do not engage endlessly and fruitlessly; no return calls or emails, no hateful or vindictive responses.  We’ve only gotten to this point because they haven’t changed after many approaches and warnings.  We might have to change our phone numbers to unlisted ones and change our email addresses.
  2. They’ll rally the extended family.  Prepare by making cue cards of what to say; no excuses or justifications.  Just tell the family what you said and did, and what you plan.  Ask them not to intervene.  Tell them we’d like to see them but only if our toxic parents are not present.  We’re sorry they’re caught in the middle but that’s life.  They do have to choose who to believe and what behavior to support.  Be prepared to withdraw from anyone who attacks or interferes.
  3. They’ll disinherit us.  When they can’t manipulate us through love, blame, shame and guilt, they’ll try greed.  If we don’t do what our toxic parents want right now, they’ll cut us out of the will.  Don’t be a slave to greed; it’s a deadly sin.  If we want to have a bully-free family life, we’ll have to make it on our own.  The real benefit is not merely ending the brutality, it’s the strength of character and the skills we gain when we make decisions for ourselves and chart our own course in the world.  We’ll end the negativity, stress, anxiety and depression usually caused by toxic parents.  We’ll develop the strength, courage, determination, perseverance and resilience we all need to make wonderful lives.  We’ll be able to express our passion and joy without cringing, waiting for the next blow to fall.
  4. We’ll have an empty space in our lives.  Even more than the empty physical space we’ll now have at the times when we used to get together with our toxic parents, we’ll have a huge mental and emotional space.  How many hours have we wasted thinking about our parents, worrying about the next episode, dreading what might happen next, agonizing over what to do.  We don’t have to do that any more.  Of course, being weaned from an old habit takes a little time.  We must be gentle with ourselves.  Focus on the freedom we now have.  Now we can think about the things we want to think about; not about pain and suffering, not about past failures.  Now we have space to bring into our lives people who will be part of the tribe of our heart and spirit.
  5. Our children will wonder why.  Tell the kids in a way that’s age appropriate.  Are we protecting them from the verbal abuse of their toxic grandparents or from lies that paint us as bad people?  They’ll want to know what’s going to stay the same.  Will they have fun, celebrate holidays, get presents, have extended family?

The most important lessons we offer our children are not through books and lectures.  Those are important, but the most important ones are the ones they see in our behavior when we’re models of behavior we want them to learn.

Be a model for them of someone who protects himself and them from anyone who would target them, even someone who’s close by blood.  Being close by behavior counts more than blood.  Show them not to be victimized even by blood relations.

Show them to how to be the hero of their lives.

With expert coaching and consulting, we can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.  We can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying.  We can overcome childhood rules to endure whatever bullying and abuse our toxic parents dish out simply because they’re our parents.  We can become strong and skilled enough to stop bullies in their tracks – even if those bullies are blood relatives. “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” has many examples of children and adults getting over their early training and freeing themselves from toxic relationships.  For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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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.

In her article in the New York Times, “The Playground Gets Even Tougher,” Pamela Paul points out that Mean Girls begin their nasty, vicious harassment, bullying and abuse on the playground and in pre-school.  They don’t wait until fifth grade or junior high school. In my experience, mean girls put down targeted kids for whatever reasons they can find – from poor, discounted, unfashionable clothes or the lack of the latest cell phones and bling, to race, religion, physical differences and hair color.  Mean girls also form cliques that ostracize, exclude and cut-out their targets or scapegoats.  Mean girl behavior cuts across all socio-economic categories – inner-city, rural, suburban and expensive, private schools.  The movies, “Mean Girls” and “Camp Rock,” give some graphic examples.

Consequences for the targets can include stomach aches, throwing up and pulling hair out before school, as well as anxiety, nightmares, sleep walking and excessive crying.  Even worse are self doubt, negative self-talk, self-hatred and loathing, loss of confidence and destruction of self-esteem.  Too often, suicide and its effects on families and communities follow. Childhood bullies and mean girls who aren’t stopped usually grow up to become bullying adult as spouses, parents, friends, and at work as co-workers and bosses.  Similarly, targets who become victims unable to stop bullies usually grow to become adult victims as spouses, parents, friends, and at work as co-workers and bosses.

Of course, mean boys are just as bad as mean girls and mean dads are just as bad as mean moms.

In my experience, mean behavior is a natural tactic for many girls to try – children naturally try to take all the toys and to feel powerful and superior by putting down other girls.  Even when they’re very young, some shift into forming mean girl cliques. Let’s point the finger at the source: With children this young, the problem is their parents Mean girls have parents who fail their responsibility to channel their daughters into better ways of acting.  The four-fold problem is:

  • Mean moms who ignore mean girl behavior at home, on the playground and in preschool.  These moms have many opportunities to step in and teach their daughters how to do better in age-appropriate ways, but they don’t.  I think of these as absentee moms, whatever their reasons – whether they’re simply uncaring or not paying attention or don’t want to deal with it or not physically present.  Nannies can be even less responsible, especially if their employers don’t want to hear about it.
  • Mean moms who set a bad example by acting mean to their extended families, to their children and to helpless servers in all forms – waiters, checkout clerks, nannies, maids, etc.  Mean girls imitate what they see and hear from their mean moms, not pious platitudes or empty commands thrown at them.
  • Mean moms who encourage mean girl behavior.  They enjoy watching their daughters be popular, superior and controlling.  They may think it’s cute and a sign of leadership potential, but whatever they think, they train their daughters to be mean.
  • Mean moms who protect and defend their mean daughters when they get feedback about mean behavior.  Of course, one-in-a-million children will be sneaky enough to be mean only when their parents aren’t looking.  Sneaky, mean girls can bully targets by acting as if the target did something to hurt their feelings and get their protective moms to get the target in trouble.  Or mean girls will simply threaten a target by saying they’ll get their moms to get the target in trouble.  Mean moms collude and often encourage this behavior.  Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series is an example of a mean boy protected by his mean father.

Suppose you’re the parent of a child who’s bullied by a mean girl, what can you do?  If you’re convinced that your daughter was not a provocateur who tried to get the other girl to react and get in trouble, should you talk to the mean girls, their moms, teachers and principals?

  • Know your daughter; will she assert and defend herself?  Since she might not talk about the meanness, you have to watch carefully on the playground and look for signs after school.  Mean girls are bullies who try to assert themselves over less assertive and less aggressive children.  Don’t ask your daughter to suffer or “rise above” because a mean girl and mean mom don’t know any better or have difficulties in their lives.
  • You might encourage your pre-school or kindergarten daughter to stand up for herself, but you should give plenty of encouragement and specific direction.  Even though your daughter is young, champion her inner strength, courage and perseverance.  She might be a target but she doesn’t have to become a victim.  Never believe mean girls’ opinions and don’t give in to their demands.
  • Intervene rapidly when your daughter seems unable to defend herself.  Don’t let the behavior continue.  Say something strongly and firmly to the mean girl.  Girls who were merely experimenting with a mean behavioral tactic will stop and not repeat it.  That’s a test of the girl – nice girls stop when you set a behavioral standard but mean girls don’t.  Mean girls think they’re smarter than you and that they have their own mothers’ protection.
  • If the mean girl doesn’t stop, test the mean girl’s mom one time.  Calmly detail the behavior and listen carefully for the response.  Is the mom appalled at her daughter’s behavior or does the mom blow it off or explain it away?  Just as in sports and childhood, your daughter might have been provocateur and then looked innocent when another girl retaliated.  So it’s natural for the other girl’s mother to try to discover the whole context and behavior before the incident.  But does the other mom immediately get defensive and angry, and twist the facts in order to blame your daughter?  Does she insist that her daughter is never wrong?  Is the mean girl’s mom too busy with her own life to educate her daughter or has she turned her child over to a nanny who won’t correct the child?
  • If these attempts change the girl’s behavior, you weren’t dealing with a hard-core mean girl and a mean mom.  But mean girls and mean moms aren’t stopped by the easy tactics.  Now you have to cut off after school activities including parties, despite the ramifications.  Also, get the pre-school teachers and principals involved.  Some will be helpful; they’ll keep it confidential, they’ll monitor to get their own evidence and then they’ll intervene.  They’ll get the mean girl out of your daughter’s class, they’ll break-up the clique, they’ll stop the behavior at school and they’ll have proactive programs to talk about mean girl behavior.  Depending on the age of the girls, they’ll teach witnesses what to do.  Unfortunately, unhelpful, uncaring, lazy, cowardly teachers and principals will look the other way or condone or even encourage mean girl behavior.  They’ll put you off with excuses.  Don’t let this happen.  Remember, principals fear publicity and law suits.

Of course, every action plan must be designed for your specific situation; depending on the children, the parents, the school and the relationships.  That’s where expert coaching will help.

Teach your children what’s right and also how to defend themselves.  Don’t convert your daughter into a victim.  Don’t sacrifice your child on the altar of your ignorance, fear or sympathetic heart.  Protect and defend your child even though there may be a high cost socially.

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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James Jones, the Florida father who boarded a school bus to protect his 13 year-old daughter from school bullies, has been raked through the media for his over-reaction.  He’s apologized profusely that he threatened the bullies and the bus driver who hadn’t stopped the bullying. The episode was captured by the bus surveillance camera.  No doubt about what he did.  The case will wind its way through the courts.  No doubt he should have been more active in contacting the school instead of boarding the bus.  He admits it.

But I think the discussion has focused on the wrong aspect of the situation; on his over-reaction.

The more important aspect is whether there was indeed bullying and, if there was,

  • How come the school principal was unaware?
  • How come the driver didn’t report it?
  • How come the videotapes weren’t scoured to see if there was evidence for the alleged bullying?
  • How come the principal didn’t talk to kids on the school bus about acceptable behavior at the beginning of the year?
  • How come none of the witnesses were willing to come forward, knowing that the principal and teachers would protect them?

A possible answer to these questions might be that there was never any bad behavior on the school bus.  But that would be surprising.  What was your experience on the school bus?  Ask your friends.

Jones, of Lake Mary, Florida, and his wife claim that their daughter, who has cerebral palsy, had been called names and pushed around.  They also claim that they had complained to Seminole County school administrators in the past, but nothing had been done to help their daughter.  Jones told deputies that boys placed an open condom on his daughter's head, smacked her on the back of her head, twisted her ear and shouted rude comments at her.

The response of the school administrators is the usual, “We didn’t know; they never contacted us.”  They focused on Mr. Jones’s over-reaction instead of on the alleged bullying on the bus.  “Changing the focus” is a typical tactic of bullies and people trying to gloss over their failure to respond effectively.

We don’t know the facts.  School bus tapes haven’t been scanned.  Complaints to the school officials by the Joneses haven’t been documented. However, I’m suggesting that in too many cases, school administrators are not proactive in creating an environment in which:

  • Every kid knows that bullying is wrong and won’t be tolerated.
  • Adults are monitoring areas in which most bullying occurs.
  • Every child (every potential witness) knows what to do and that their reports will be confidential and they’ll be protected.

The huge outcry in support of Mr. Jones demonstrates the lurking fear that all parents have: principals, teachers and staff too often look the other way and don’t actively protect our children.  There’s the lurking fear that our child will be the next bullying-caused suicide.  We empathize with Mr. Jones’ frustration and anger.

I’d be more likely to believe the school principal if he or she stood next to Mr. Jones on nationwide television and said things like, “Yes, Mr. Jones over-reacted, but we won’t tolerate bullying anywhere at school, we’re reviewing tapes to see if there was bullying, we’re questioning the driver, we’re instituting a strong program to educate all teachers, staff and kids that we won’t tolerate bullying.  We’ll get the facts in this specific case.”

I disagree with the supposed experts who say that parents shouldn’t intervene, even if the targeted children can’t protect themselves, for example, because the number of bullies is overwhelming or because the child has cerebral palsy and can’t protect herself, like Mr. Jones’ daughter.

I think we simply have to know how to intervene more skillfully so that, when necessary, we know how to force inactive, lazy or reluctant principals to act.  For example, if the Joneses had been more skillful in documenting their complaints to the school, if they really did, there would be a clear paper trail of every interaction with the school administrators, including administrators’ signatures on minutes of every conversation and the Joneses would have copies.  Individualized coaching is crucial to developing this skill.

More important than psychologists’ claims that “when [parents] jump in and [intervene], it helps the kids actually feel worse because they feel less control, they feel like they can't handle themselves and they feel defenseless without the bodyguard there,” is that when children actually are overwhelmed or helpless, they know that they’re protected by responsible adults.  They can learn to protect themselves better as they grow more independent.

Mr. Jones’ daughter was helpless to defend herself.  The stress, anxiety and fear are greater because she wasn’t protected. Let’s focus on the real problem; bullying on the bus, near the lockers, on the playgrounds, in the bathrooms, in the hallways, in the cafeteria and everywhere else bullies feel safe to attack their targets.

You can see or listen to “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” for many examples of how to stop bullies.

There’s a world of difference between being an active witness to bullying and abuse, and being merely a bystander. A bystander has already decided to be an uninvolved spectator, to look the other way, to pretend ignorance if called upon.

A witness can make a tactical decision based on the circumstances – intervene now in some tactical way or speak up later.

At work, co-workers or bosses are bullies; at home, abusive parents will harass and bully one young child while lavishing goodies on the other; in addition, toxic parents will favor one adult child over another with love and inheritance on the line.

I’ll focus here on kids, but the larger implications should be obvious when you think about slavery or the Nazis or a hundred other public examples.

Often, at school and at home, mean kids will try to turn siblings or friends against each other.

For example, Charles’ friend, Brad, was relentlessly nasty to Charles’ sister Sarah.  He made fun of her, called her stupid, dumb and ugly, and, even though Sarah was tall and skilled enough to play with the older boys, he’d cut her out of their games or he’d intentionally knock her down.

Charles looked on in dismay but never interfered.  That was puzzling to Charles’ parents because, in one-to-one situations, Charles played well with Sarah and liked her.  Yet Charles had become a bystander; he wouldn’t step up to what he knew was right.

How come he didn’t protect Sarah from Brad?  Was Charles afraid that if he interfered he’d lose a friend or that Brad would beat him up?  Did Charles secretly want his sister out of the way?

More important than an analysis of “why,” was the potential effect on Charles of being a bystander.  What would be the cost to his character and mental and emotional well-being?  What would be the effect on his conscience and self-esteem if he played along and didn’t speak up against the abuse or if he colluded by joining in the harassment of his sister in order to make friends with Brad?

Without knowing the real answers to the “why” questions, the pain, shame, anxiety and stress of watching his sister tormented and the guilty laceration of his conscience finally drove Charles to choose which side he was on.  He stood up for his sister and for high standards of conduct, but then he had to solve another problem; Brad was a head taller and 30 pounds heavier than he was.

In front of Sarah, Charles got in Brad’s face and told him to cut it out.  If Brad wanted to be his friend and play with him, he had to be nice to Sarah…or else

Most of the Brad’s in the world would back down but this one didn’t.  Angry words led to shoving and Brad grabbed Charles and threw him down.  At this point Charles and Sarah’s advanced planning gave them a tactical advantage.  Sarah, as tall and heavy as Charles, jumped on Brad’s back and the brother and sister piled on Brad and punched and kicked him.

As with most kid fights it was over fast.  Brad got the message; he was facing a team.  If he wanted to play with them he’d have to play with both of them.  If he wanted to fight he’d have to fight both of them.  No parents were involved and Brad chose to play with them and be nice to Sarah.

As much as the incident helped Sarah, Charles was the major beneficiary of his choice.  His self-esteem soared.  He had been courageous and mentally strong.  And he learned that he and his sister could plan and stand firm together.

In a different situation, Ellen was popular and Allison, who was outgoing but had no friends, wanted Ellen all to herself.  At school, Allison put-down and cut out anyone Ellen wanted to play with.  If Ellen refused to follow Allison, Allison would get hysterical, cry and wail that Ellen was hurting her feelings.  Ellen didn’t want to hurt Allison but she wanted to play with whoever she wanted to play with.

The situation came to a head during the summer.  Allison wanted to play with Ellen every day.  And on every play date, Allison would be nasty to Ellen’ younger sister.  She’d mock Jill, order her to leave them alone and demand that Ellen get rid of her younger sister.  They were best friends and there was no room for a little kid.

Numerous times at their house, Ellen’ parents asked Allison to include Jill, but to no avail.  Allison would agree, but as soon as their backs were turned she’d be twice as nasty to Jill.

Ellen faced the same choice that Charles had; hurt her sister in order to collude with her friend or lose a friend and classmate.

Ellen didn’t agonize like Charles had.  Ellen was very clear; colluding is not how a good person would act.  However, her requests that Allison stop only brought on more hysterical anger and tantrums.

Ellen didn’t want to play with Allison any more but didn’t know how to accomplish this.  When she told Allison, Allison threw another fit – hurt feelings and crying.

This situation required different tactics from Charles’ because Ellen was younger and arrangements for them to play during the summer and after school had to be made by their parents.

Ellen’ parents could have gone to Allison’s parents and told them what Allison was doing.  However, they’d observed that Allison’s parents had never tried to stop her hysterics, blaming and finger-pointing at school.  They’d always believed Allison’s accusations about other kids and added their blame.  They demanded that teachers do what Allison wanted.

Ellen’ parents thought that raising the issue with Allison’s parents would only lead to negativity, accusations and an ugly confrontation, which would carry over to school.

They decided to use an indirect approach; they were simply always too busy for Ellen to play with Allison.  The rest of the summer they made excuses to ensure there would be no play dates.  When school started, they made sure there were no play dates after school, even if Jill wasn’t there.  They didn’t want their daughter to be friends with such a stealthy, manipulative, nasty, control-freak like Allison.

In addition, they told Ellen’s teacher what Allison was doing and asked them to watch if Allison tried to control Ellen and cut out other kids.

Most important, Charles stopped being spectator and became an effective witness-participant.  Ellen also would not remain a bystander.  She made her feelings clear and her parents helped intervene.  Both children learned important lessons in developing outstanding character and values.

Tactics are always dependent on the specifics of the situation.  As parents wanting to help and guide your children and grandchildren, remember that there’s no one-right-way to act.  The people involved get to choose where they want to start the process of standing up as witnesses and participants.  You can get ideas and guidelines from books and CDs but on-going coaching, to prepare you for your “moments of truth,” is essential.  You will need to adjust your plan in response to what happens at each step along the way.

For example, see the studies of Jake and Carrie in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks.”

In their article in the New York Times, “There’s Only One Way to Stop a Bully,” Susan Engel and Marlene Sandstrom focus on the educational aspects of programs designed to stop school bullying.  Let’s look at the whole picture and especially at the piece that’s usually missing from ineffective school programs:

  • Laws: Over 40 states have passed laws to specify school bullying behaviors and to make them illegal.  That’s a necessary step.  Good laws give legal leverage to principals, school district administrators and teachers who try to stop school bullies.  Good laws can also force reluctant school principals to implement and enforce effective programs to protect the targets of bullies.
  • Programs: Laws, by themselves, will not stop bullying.  Also, expensive, off-the-shell anti-bullying programs won’t stop bullies as long as the programs remain in their binders and are used merely as window dressing to show the appearance of compliance.  Furthermore, programs that are focused on rehabilitating or therapeutizing bullies are ineffective.  Since the only consequence for bullies in these programs is lengthy lectures, they have no reason to change their behavior and they victimize their targets more brutally.  Real bullies are adept at manipulating the system and do-gooders who run it.  Effective programs are designed for specific schools and school districts by participation between a consultant, principal and teachers that broaden to include staff, parents and students.
  • Effective Programs: The motivating force behind these programs is proactive, responsible adults who don’t wait until a flagrant case is brought to them or they are surprised by a suicide.  Effective programs educate teachers and all staff to observe, intervene and report bullying situations.  These programs educate all staff, children and parents about behavior that’s acceptable, how that behavior will be rewarded and how to stop behavior that absolutely won’t be tolerated.

Effective programs have clear procedures and consequences at every step of the way.  Ineffective programs move much too slowly; they protect the rights of bullies to have a lengthy process of rehabilitation while they give bullies continued access to their targets.  Effective programs begin with protecting the victims; they move swiftly to remove bullies even if that interferes with the bully’s educational opportunities.  These programs begin the first day of school and are reinforced weekly.

  • People: Everyone must be involved in backing an effective program.  Irresponsible adults pretend that they don’t know who the bullies are or where it occurs or they think that the Golden Rule will change the hearts of real bullies.  Responsible adults will have a strong commitment to making their environment safe.  The children must be taught what is expected of them and how to respond if they’re bullied or if they witness bullying.  Kids must also have a way of finding help with temporary urges to act like a bully.

A critical group is parents.  Principals need core groups of parents to support efforts to stop bullies, despite threats from bullying parents.  Also, parents can lead the efforts to communicate and to set the tone of acceptable behavior with other parents.  Vigilance and involvement are necessary to maintain the standards.

  • How to recognize real bullies.  If you think of all students as fitting on some version of a Bell curve, you’ll see that some kids won’t ever bully while most are in the middle group – they’ll accept the prevailing tone and behave in ways that are praised or tolerated.  That’s where education and a tone of no-bullying can influence their behavior.

But no matter how much they are indoctrinated, they’ll try bullying when they’re having a bad day or a bad year in their personal lives.  If they’re not stopped, they’ll be encouraged to continue and they’ll even act worse.  If cliques get formed to pick on scapegoats, these middle-ground kids will be tempted to join or at least to look the other way.  If the individuals in the cliques are stopped and punished, kids in that middle group will tend to remove themselves from the cliques and to fit into the prevailing tone of civilized behavior.

None of the kids in those two groups are what I call real bullies.  Real bullies are at the end of the curve.  They come into school with bullying as their main tactic to get what they want and to assert themselves.  They are predators who won’t change because of lectures and indoctrination.  They must be stopped or they’ll set the tone of acceptable behavior and draw other kids into bullying and abuse.

  • The missing and critical elements: Stop bullies; remove them; deal with their bullying parents.  The “one way” Engel and Sandstrom focus on, like most experts in this field, is to educate bullies and encourage other students to befriend and involve the bullies in inclusive activities.  They stress expressions like “be good to one another,” “be kind,” “cooperate,” “relationship,” “friendship” and “bullies require our help more than punishment.  These are important for everyone to hear and they can set the tone for the kids in the first two groups but they’re not enough to stop real-world bullies.

The missing elements that are critical to stop predators are swift and firm responses of adults to remove and isolate bullies, and to let parents of bullies know what is going on and what behavior will not be tolerated.  Principals, teachers and staff set the tone by their actions, not their words.  They show what behavior will be accepted and what won’t.  Too often, principals won’t be straight forward, clear and firm with the parents of bullies.  Too often, principals take the path of least resistance because they’re afraid of bullying parents who threaten law suits.

Good programs also teach children how to “defend” and “stand up” for each other.  Good programs make children feel safe in becoming active witnesses instead of remaining passive bystanders or reluctant collaborators.

Stopping bullies is the first and necessary step to gain leverage to teach bullies that their old tactics won’t get them what they want.  It’s more important than knowing if bullies are seeking love or power, or have low self-esteem, or simply don’t know better.  When bullies discover that their old tactics no longer work, they’re more willing to learn new tactics to make their way in the world.

Real bullies are very strategic in their behavior; they harass, bully and abuse kids who the other kids won’t protect.  Or, like little scientists, they’ll bully a kid once and keep score of that kid’s response.  If the targeted kid is ineffective in stopping a bully, bullies will take that as an invitation to do whatever they want with impunity.  They’ll continue to increase the frequency and severity of the abuse until they’re stopped.

All kids know whether the adults will protect them or if they’re on their own in a jungle in which power, not right, rules.  Just as all students know who the bullies are and what areas of school are unsafe, examples of the consequences meted out to bullies will spread instantly.

There are moments of choice in all our lives when we are called upon to stand up for our best dreams and aspirations.  Sometimes we recognize and seize these opportunities, sometimes we ignore these moments and sometimes we don’t ever hear their call to our spirits.  Each of these moments and our responses create long-lasting effects on our self-confidence and self-esteem; on our vision of the futures we want and on the dedication and determination with which we pursue our dreams. Obviously, being subjected to harassment, bullying and abuse, or giving in to the temptation to bully helpless people creates these critical moments.  And being a bystander or a witness to bullying and abuse is also one of these moments that calls out to our spirits.  Will we step up and defend what we know to be right?  Are we cowards or lazy?  Do we know what to do?  Are we skilled?

There are major long term effects on kids who are bystanders and look away or don’t know how to act effectively or who aren’t supported in their actions by responsible adults.  New studies are beginning to provide public evidence, but from our own experiences we all know what the results of those studies will be.

When we see a wrong being done, often repeatedly, and when we don’t act or when no one else acts to right that wrong, we are deeply affected.  When we don’t know what to do to stop the wrong our helplessness increases.  When the adults and other students don’t act to protect targets of abuse, our own vulnerability and insecurity increases tremendously.  Our guilt for our inaction tries to goad us to do better next time.

When we’re children, we try to make sense of the world.  When we see actions that don’t make sense or that seem evil, we are thrown into confusion and fear.  Naturally, we want our world to be reasonable and controllable.  And we want to be protected by the responsible adults – principals, teachers, parents.  When evil triumphs or wrong goes unpunished, the world becomes bleak and too many kids lose confidence in their own efforts and chances of success; we can get insecure, stressed, unassertive, discouraged and depressed, and we can give up.  And we also carry a great burden of guilt, shame and negative self-talk.

Since 60-70% of school children witness bullying, the scars on a significant percent of the population can be staggering.

One of our tasks as parents is to prepare our children and teenagers for these critical situations.  We must give our kids and teens age-appropriate guidance about their options: When and how to intervene by themselves, or to get principals, teachers and school staff involved, or to get us parents involved.

A second task for parents is to plan ahead; ally with like-minded, proactive parents to make sure that your:

A key factor in every successful program is that bystanders-witnesses are rallied to support bullied targets, have been trained to be skillful in their actions and are backed by principals, teachers and staff.

Opportunities, moments of choice are precious and critical in every child’s development.  Every call we spurn becomes a burden that weighs us down.  The scars left by inaction when facing wrong or evil can last a lifetime and can diminish our lives.  They always remain to call us to do better next time.

As Pat Tillman’s father said about his son answering such a call, “You only get a few chances in life to show your stuff.  Often it’s a split second when you step up or you don’t.  If you don’t step up and you should have, that eats away at a young man.  And I don’t think it goes away when he gets older.”  The same goes for a young woman.

In his recent ABC news opinion column, “Want to Stop Bullies?” Lee Dye cites new studies that claim that:

  1. Girls are more likely than boys to intervene to stop bullying than boys are.
  2. Girls intervene more because they’re expected to by their parents, best friends and favorite teachers.
  3. Popular males are more likely to pick on weaker boys, while unpopular, weaker but aggressive boys are more likely to pick on girls.

Of course.  So what?

I’m glad Mr. Dye is speaking out and I share his desire to stop bullies and harassment, bullying and abuse in schools.

The reason I’m sarcastic is that I think these studies, done by interviewing 269 middle school students in four schools in North Central Florida, are typical of the thought process and pseudo-scientific research that says that if we knew more we could design better programs to stop bullies.  And they imply that we can’t have successful anti-bullying programs until we have more research.

However, this research adds nothing we didn’t already know.  And the generalizations are contradicted by evidence from the recent suicide deaths of four girls in Schenectady, New York.

We already know that getting the kids involved in anti-bullying programs is critical.  We already know that it’s crucial to teach children what to do when they are bystanders and see bullying.  In order to incorporate that knowledge into anti-bullying programs, we don’t need to wait until there’s more pseudo-science research to prove that point.

In summary, we know that it’s everyone’s job to stop bullying in schools and everyone’s help is necessary, especially the kids.  No one group can make a program work if the other members of the local community resist or are uncaring.  The programs in New Hampshire are only the latest reports documenting what we know already.

Successful programs have the seven elements crucial to success:

  1. The programs specify acceptable and unacceptable behavior
  2. Children are taught specifically what to do if they’re bullied or if they’re bystanders
  3. The programs involve everyone – school board members, police, principals, teachers, administrative staff and bus drivers, the kids, and at least a vocal, core group of parents.
  4. Consequences are clear and effective action rapid
  5. Courageous and proactive administrators, school principals and teachers
  6. Kids are also trained at home not to bully and how to stop bullies
  7. All steps are implemented simultaneously

Anti-bullying laws are necessary to force reluctant or uncaring district administrators and principals to act.  They’re also necessary to protect principals and teachers who do act from bullying parents who defend their little terrorists and threaten to sue the principal and school for harassing their little bully.  That’s like in the Harry Potter series where Lucius Malfoy protects his vicious son, Draco.

The biggest problem in stopping bullies is not the lack of research about bullying: It’s the lack of skillful effort being put forth by the most caring people.  At many schools, well-meaning principals and teachers need to join forces with a core group of parents to get programs in motion.  At other schools, frustrated and angry parents need to rally other parents in order to force uncaring or cowardly school district administrators and principals to make effective school policies and then take act promptly and strongly.

In his article for MSNBC, “Rules to curb online bullying raise concerns,” Alex Johnson discusses the need for laws to prevent cyberbullying and also details situations in which schools can overreact in the enforcement of those rules.  The case of teenager Avery Doninger is particularly glaring. The underlying thrust of the article is the need to create exactly the right laws that will give the right result in every situation.  Situations like the cyberbullying suicide case last year make good laws critical.

The real problem is not necessarily the law; it’s the hidden assumption that cyberbullying laws can ever be made “just right” for all situations – never too lax, never too harsh.  That assumption overlooks history and human nature.  The letter of the law can never cover all situations with “just right” justice.  We always depend on human wisdom in the law’s application to specific situations.  That’s just the way it is – for better or for worse.

Our society is in the stage of figuring out where we want to draw the lines about a new method, cyberbullying, that bullies and perpetrators use to harass, abuse and attack adults and children.  That’s our normal trial and error process.  There’s no easy answer for protecting kids online. Actually, we make laws in hopes that they’ll yield justice in, say, 95% of the cases that come up.  No matter what laws we make in any area of life, there will be specific situations in which a literal or dumb interpretation leads to an under or over-reaction.  That’s where we hope the individuals involved use good sense and good judgment.

In the case of Avery Doninger, the real question is: Is the law bad or did the school principal get defensive and over-react by not giving a second chance to a good and contrite student who learned an important lesson or is there more we don’t know about Avery?

We’re stuck with the fact that laws, by themselves, will never cover every situation, no matter where we draw the lines; whether it’s about cyberbullies, verbal bullies or physical bullies. I look carefully at the application of any law in a specific situation before rushing in to change the law.  Often the problem is in the application, not in the law itself.  That’s why we have Appeals Courts.

Separate from the general laws are the specific situations involving my kids and your kids (and adults).  My job is to monitor my children:

  • Do they look like they’re having a hard time and may be being attacked by a cyberbully?  Are they having difficulty dealing with it?  How can I help them deal with it by themselves or do I need to intervene?
  • Are they witnessing cyberbullying and are they struggling to know whether or how to intervene?
  • Are they creating a hard time for someone else (are they cyberbullies)?  How do I stop them and help them develop the character to make amends and do better next time?
  • Should they even be using MySpace or FaceBook or any social networking sites?  What else would be a better use of their time and energy?

I’m going to get my answers to those questions by observing them, talking to them and, maybe, using good software like PC Pandora to monitor what they’re doing (http://blog.pcpandora.com/2009/01/29/do-new-cyberbullying-laws-go-to-far/).

Cyberbullies and cyberbullying will be with us no matter what laws we make.  We hope the laws will help us deal effectively with most of them.

As I show in my books and CDs of case studies, “How to Stop Bullies in their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” bullies are not all the same, but their patterns of behavior, their tactics, are the same.  That’s why we can find methods to stop most of them.  If we don’t stop bullies, they’ll think we’re easy prey.  Like sharks, they’ll just go after us more.

When children and teens learn how to stop bullies in their tracks, they develop strength of character, determination, resilience and skill.  They’ll need these qualities to succeed against the real world bullies they’ll face as adults. Coaching designed for the specific situations faced by individual parents and teenagers is critical.

The post on the PC Pandora Blog, “The signs of cyberbullying,” refers to an article by Elizabeth Wasserman, “Warning signs: Is Your Child Having Cyber Issues?”  The original article gives a good list of some of the signs that your child might be having trouble dealing with cyber bullies.  The follow-up post refers to the PC Pandora software that will alert parents if their child is either being the victim of cyberbullying or is even a cyberbully him or herself. The signs they listed were: * Changed work habits, grades slipping, failing tests. * Losing sleep or sleeping too much. * Increased insecurity or irritability.

I would add withdrawal and lack of communication.  These warning signs are really some of the warning signs that teenagers are having problems with any issue they can’t resolve by themselves, not only cyberbullying.  They’re tip-offs that parents need to talk more with their children and find out what’s going on.

However, the solutions suggested by the experts in the article fall short in the real-world.  They all stem from the ideas that kids are experts and parents should not upset or pressure their children too much.  Instead, parents should only make what I think of as weak suggestions.

However, suggestions are nice but are usually not enough.  Most children may be more expert than their parents about technology but: 1. They don’t know what’s best for them.  I hope that as parents with much broader experience, we know a lot that our children don’t and they have already had the opportunity to see that. 2. They’re not more expert than we are about dealing with bullies.  I hope we have many ideas they haven’t thought about, even if that might mean they would have to go outside their comfort zones or we might have to intervene.

We may have to work hard to get our kids to tell us or to problem solve with us.  How many of us told our parents when we had trouble?  But that’s the universal task.  Their liking it or not is not the most important criterion.

I know parents who have even prohibited their children from wasting time on social networks like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.  They want their children to have face to face social activities with real people they can judge face to face.  How’s that for a concept.

I also think that to put a dent in the amount of cyberbullying, we’ll need Federal laws to make it illegal and then the willingness of social networks to turn over records of cyberbullies.  Writing and enforcing these laws will be as difficult as enforcing the libel laws we already have.  We’ll have to distinguish between an angry exchange and a pattern of on-going attacks.

I learned effective techniques to deal with bullies through growing up in New York City, by watching our six children (three girls and three boys) deal with each other and with bullies at school, and through my experience as a coach, psychotherapist and consultant.

According to numerous reports, a teenager was bullied at West Middle School in metro Denver.  The boy had pencils, markers and a calculator taken; he was called fat; he was called “gay” because he was involved in musical theater; because he was from musical theater, he was called a “Nazi.”  Eventually, he tried fighting back against his tormentors.  But he wasn’t big or strong enough and was beaten severely.  He suffered a broken collar bone and head injury.  The published picture of him is self-evident.  Now that the case has become public, the community is in an uproar and the Cherry Creek School District has responded by expelling the bully.  The bullied boy has reported that the bully threatened to beat him more when he returns.  Three other students, who also threatened to beat up the victim, have been required to sign contracts that they won’t harass the boy.  That’s nice of the school district to go that far. Of course the legal wrangling will go on for a long time.

There’s so much to say about this example of hostility, abuse and brutality.  I want to comment on only a few areas.

The adults failed.  Whether they blame the legal system or say they didn’t know; they failed. Since the severe beating happened at the end of November, don’t you think that every student in school knew what was happening? 

The parents of the bully and his collaborators failed.  They are supposed to know their children’s character and to stop their children’s bullying.

The teachers failed.  They are supposed to know who torments, abuses and bully’s another student and they are supposed to stop it.  They allowed a hostile, abusive environment to continue.  If the typical educational approaches don’t work rapidly, they are supposed to intervene in other ways.

The principal failed.  The principal is supposed to set a tone of zero tolerance.  The principal is supposed to be courageous enough to cut through the legal red tape and somehow stop bullies.  If the teachers don’t stop it, the principal is supposed to stop it and then get rid of those cowardly and/or ignorant teachers.  The worst beating happened at the end of November and the principal did nothing effective for three months until the story became public.

The administrators in the school district failed.  The administrators are supposed to be courageous enough to cut through the legal red tape and somehow stop bullying.  If the principal doesn’t stop it, the school district administrators are supposed to step in and then get rid of that cowardly and/or ignorant principal.  The worst beating happened at the end of November and the district administrators did nothing effective for three months until the story became public.

How can we hold up these teachers, principal and school district administrators as models for children?  They have failed as models.  Despite, or maybe because of, their colleges and universities, their degrees and certifications, their possible expertise in some course matter, they have shown themselves to be ignorant or cowardly or inept or all three.  They have failed the public trust and are unfit to be teachers, principal or administrators.

They should not be allowed to hide behind a poor legal system.  We all know that there are schools in the most violent locations in which courageous administrators, principals and teachers bullying.  And they do it in the face of the same.

The 14 year-old boy who was bullied has shown himself to be courageous.  He has succeeded.  At first he did what we all try to do.  We try accommodating in hopes that the bully will move on.  We ask bullies to stop; we take the bullying; we try to understand what lousy home lives we think bullies must have; we try to rise above it.  These tactics may stop many kids who are temporarily trying on bullying to see what it feels like, but those tactics don’t stop dedicated, relentless bullies.  They are not effective for teaching children to stop bullies at school.

Eventually that boy fought.  I say he succeeded because, even though he was severely beaten he did what was necessary to try to stop his tormentors.  He lost the fight but he emerges as the one person who is not a coward in this affair.  He can hold his head up high all his life.  He can keep his self-esteem.  He can judge the adults as cowards and failures.  I hope he is resilient enough to bounce back  and continues to resist to bullies the rest of his life.  I hope that when he becomes an adult with more choices, he creates a personal life that is bully-free.  Sometimes, a tormented teen can fight back and win – as in the case of the “Teen acquitted in punch.”

Of course, bullies will always exist .  America is not unique, nor are we the worst people in the world.  We are outraged and we will try to make better systems.  And more important, we still must train , seek and hire people who can act effectively, no matter how poor the system is at any moment.  And we must educate and prepare individuals to be as courageous as that 14 year-old boy.

Among other places, this story was carried by the Denver Post (Bullies called teen “Nazi” and “gay”), 9news (Student says he was bullied, beaten because he’s German), the Denver Channel News (Boy: School Bullies Harassed Him Because Of German Ancestry) and the Denver Post Neighbors Forum (Article Discussion: Cherry Creek teen may face bully in court).

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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