I’ll start right off with the bottom line: being “nice” and “caring” won’t help kids stop relentless school bullies.
I’ve been interviewed a lot on radio and TV. But when I ask those interviewers how they stopped bullying when they were kids, almost all the women say they were never taught how to stop bullies. Instead, their well-meaning moms told them:
Bullies have a hard life so we should have sympathy for what they’re going through and how low their self-esteem must be.
Don’t sink to the bully’s level by fighting back. You have it easy so you should rise above the bullies.
If you’re nice enough, kind enough and loving enough, bullies will respond by being nice in return.
You should never push back – verbally or physically. If you push back, it means you don’t care.
Violence is morally wrong and violence never solves anything. They cite Mahatma Gandhi as someone who stopped the British without pushing back and by preaching tolerance and love.
All these women now bear a grudge against their well-meaning mothers. Those messages are all wrong. These women learned the hard way that the way you identify relentless bullies is that “nice” and “caring” don’t convert them from predators to friends.
First, the statement about Gandhi is a complete misunderstanding of his tactics. Applying ahimsa to relentless bullies is not a good comparison. If Gandhi had tried his tactics against Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao or the founder of Pakistan, he wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes.
Second, violence was required to stop slavery, Nazism, Fascism and communism, to name just a few.
Third, you have to love yourself first. Sometimes, the most caring thing you can do for someone who’s a jerk and a bully is to show them that their tactics don’t work. They’d better learn new tactics.
Fourth, you can’t love relentless bullies enough to change how they treat you. Ignoring, minimizing and “rising above” do not stop relentless bullies. Appeasement, begging and bribery do not stop relentless bullies.
Fifth, you’re not the bully’s therapist; it’s not your job to rehabilitate them. The adults have that responsibility, but only after they protect and defend the targets of bullying.
You have to succeed even though conditions haven’t been prepared perfectly for you. Don’t starve while you’re waiting for someone else to set the table. You have to overcome obstacles; it’s a sign of good character.
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?
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.
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.
The success of Mahatma Gandhi and non-violent protest or non-violent resistance is often cited as absolute proof that such non-violent methods can defeat oppression and stop bullies. That idea is often linked to the assertions that the world was a simpler place back when people came together face to face, a small group of committed people can change the world and there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.
As much as I almost always try non-violent techniques first, I disagree strongly. You’re better off thinking of non-violent protest as a method, a strategy or a tactic; not as a philosophy.
Let’s examine non-violent protest as if its truth as a philosophy can be tested against history.
Gandhi-ji was successful against the British and I wouldn’t argue that any other tactic he could have employed would have succeeded. But his success only proves that in that particular circumstance, lead by that unique individual spirit, the tactic of non-violent protest was successful in getting the British to leave India. Do you think that non-violent resistance would have been effective in India in 1857? Or that it would help the Indian people now against Pakistan (or vice versa) or against the Muslim terrorists who recent launched their attacks in Mumbai?
I remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. I was actually in Chicago when he led the march and rally. Do you think he would have succeeded in leading a march in Chicago in 1920 or New York in the 1830’s (read about the mass atrocities and killings during the riots there)? Do you think the movement would have succeeded integrating schools in the South without the Federal troops willing to shoot?
Gandhi and Dr. King were in the right places at the right times for the methods they chose. Would either have even gotten obituaries in the newspapers if they tried non-violent protest in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur, or against the Ayatollah or Sadam Hussein, just to name a few?
The wisdom and lessons of history are clear, whether we like them or not. They’re found in the great literature of the world, as well as in the facts we know:
The world was never a simpler place. Try living your life on a self-sufficient farm, especially when the locusts or drought or flood or fire comes. Or when a conquering horde comes over the hill to kill all the men and take the women and children into slavery. That was dealing with problems face to face. Remember in the Iliad what happened to mighty Hector’s wife and son. No unemployment insurance, retirement funds or welfare.
A small group of people can change the world. Usually that’s what has happened, whether they start a Renaissance or a dictatorship or they’re called the Founding Fathers or Mothers.
Although there are many things we’ve accomplished through science and technology in the physical, material world, there are many things we can’t accomplish in the organic, living world. We will never have world peace. We will never have a global society that encourages and makes possible everyone’s individual freedom. Power is a reality of human nature, not freedom (as much as we Americans value it). Protecting me and mine against you and yours, or people grabbing what they want is a reality of human nature.
In response to a question about peaceful, non-violent protest being effective when facing Chinese soldiers with machine guns, the Dali Lama said, about two years ago, that had we stood there and prayed and chanted and reasoned, they simply would have shot us all. Similarly, the Quakers in Pennsylvania were barred from holding office because their peaceful methods did not protect the colonists they served from Indian attacks.
History shows that, for the most part, those who succeed practicing non-violence live in caves, deserts, misty mountains or monasteries. Usually, they live on practically nothing or are supported and taken care of by people who brave the world in which violence is a probability. For example, Gandhi could live poor and politically active because, in part, he was supported by the efforts and money of one of the richest women in India.
To think that we can have sustainable world peace is to indulge in childhood, magical thinking – very 60’s and 70’s.
Start with your personal world. Deal effectively and individually with the bullies you find, whether they be face to face or cyberbullies, bullies at work, home or school. Help make laws against those behaviors, but if you want society or the government to actively guarantee security, you will create Big Brother and you won’t like the consequences.
Think of non-violent protest and reasoning as initial tactics to employ. Sometimes they’ll be effective. Bullies will show you if non-violent protest enough to stop them. But if non-violent resistance doesn’t stop a bully, you have to be more clever and firm. History actually shows that usually the best way to prepare for peace is to be strong enough to wage war successfully, despite the seductively catchy bumper sticker to the contrary. Remember, no method succeeds everywhere and every when.
If you can’t be happy until the world is totally peaceful and all the problems are solved, you’ll have a lousy life. That would be a waste of your potential for wonder, awe and joy, as well as for effecting change … even knowing that change won’t last beyond your life span.
Recently, I’ve seen articles and heard parents saying that since words can hurt, we shouldn’t deny our children what they want or ever say, "No" to them. They think that if we deny them or say "No", we’ll damage their confidence and self esteem. But if we give them continual praise and approval, we’ll help them develop high self-esteem and a willingness to take risks. Some studies are even quoted about the harmful effects of the words parents use.
I disagree with that advice and parenting style.
Of course words matter; and even more important is how they’re delivered – frequency, voice tone, body language and with beating or caressing.
Of course, unrelenting yelling, insults, criticism, humiliation, shame, guilt, dismissing, ridicule and rejection are harmful. Personal insults hurt little children. Hostility and personal attacks tell children that they are bad people for wanting what they want or for doing something wrong or for not doing something right. It’s easy for children to think their identity is damaged, defective or blemished in ways that cannot be rectified.
A few days ago, I saw a chilling video made at a car wash. A mother was holding the arm of an approximately 3-4-year-old child while torturing her with the power washing hose. The child was screaming in pain and writhing to break free. The mother was screaming that the child had better respect her. Of course, we don’t need research to tell us that’s lousy parenting and abuse.
Don’t live a life fueled by such anger and viciousness. Weigh your life heavily toward approval, encouragement and praise. After all, children naturally want to learn, explore and imitate their loving parents. Maintain control of yourself during moments when your frustration might break out into emotional abuse and intimidation, or verbal and physical violence.
Create a background of loving physical and verbal caresses for all your interactions with your children. Against that background, it’s critically important that you correct, deny and say "No" sometimes. Don’t give children everything they want. Set age-appropriate limits on their behavior. Teach them how to get along socially.
Most important: Teach them that they can be denied and be told "No", and the world doesn’t end. Their lives go on just fine without getting everything. Maybe they’ll get what they want another day. Or maybe, they’ll have to grow up and earn the money to get what they want for themselves. Or maybe, as they grow older, they’ll become more aware of the consequences of what they want and they’ll learn to not want it. That’s called self-discipline, character and integrity.
If you never say "No", you end up with spoiled, selfish children like Veruka Salt from “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Teach them to be resilient so a "No" doesn’t crush their spirits. Then, denial doesn’t stop them from ever wanting or asking again and a "No" isn’t emotional abuse and doesn’t cause emotional damage.
Teach your children what’s safe and unsafe, what’s right and wrong, what’s worthy and not good enough, what’s honorable and dishonorable. Without your guidance, TV will teach them.
Some people still have scars because of what their parents said and did repeatedly. And, of course, some have more and deeper scars. But let’s be clear. All of us ultimately have the same task: to get over our childhoods and create better lives for ourselves and our children. Whether the scars were caused by parents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, teachers, school bullies or rotten strangers, the task is the same.
How can we do that? I always look to the people who had it worst: The ones who survived genocidal wars, prison camps, slavery. How do they look at themselves and the world that they can still laugh and sing and dance and love? And it’s our job to become like them also.
In addition, we can now resist the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual attacks by spouses, co-workers and bosses. We can now resist putdowns and bullies; we can now reject their opinions or fight back.
We must now train our own memories and fears: The future does not have to be as bad as the past was. Otherwise we become adult victims to what they did to us when we were children.
Don’t let those ruin the rest of your life. Grow up. They might have been in charge of the past, but you’re in charge of the future.
Are your children and teens resilient? Do they bounce back after they’ve been disappointed or faced hostility, bullies, abuse or trauma? Are you resilient? Do you know how to resist a hostile, abusive, controlling or bullying husband or wife? Can you resist your self-bullying tendencies? How about abusive, controlling or bullying friends, relatives or neighbors? How about at work; hostile, abusive, bullying bosses, managers or co-workers? Do you bounce back from getting passed over, terminated or fired from a hostile workplace? You know – lies, yelling, cursing, back-stabbing, verbal abuse, demeaning insults, harassment, false complaints or accusations.
According to a Newsweek article written by Mary Carmichael (The Resiliency Gene: A genetic variant may protect some abused kids from depression and other long-term effects) the National Institute of Mental Health is funding studies to find the genes associated with resiliency to hostility, abuse and trauma. As a former practicing biochemist, I can say that, of course, we’ll find genes associated with almost every pattern of behavior.
But, I think it’s a dead end if we focus merely on the genetic expressions of what’s going on.
Why do I think it’s a dead end? Because you end up thinking that either you have the right stuff or you don’t. That belief won’t help your children develop strength of character or as much resilience as they can. For example, contrast the behavior of the teen in cyber-bullying suicide case with the teen who was acquitted of punching a racist tormentor .
Worrying about the resiliency gene won’t help you be courageous either. You’ll remain a victim; hoping the system can be made 100 percent safe and fair. You’re better off thinking that you can develop the right stuff to protect yourself, to create a bully-free environment. That approach to make the world totally and completely safe is being tried right now in our schools .
Resiliency is something that we’ve seen and studied throughout history. For example, in their elegant studies of about 700 famous men and women (“Cradles of Eminence,” 1962), Victor and Mildred Goertzel, called the eminent survivors of childhood abuse and trauma, “The Invulnerables.” Our history is full of men and women who failed and then bounced back, struggled and succeeded.
In my coaching of adults (including parents wanting to know how to help their children), I encourage them to focus on the “free will” aspects of their lives. You have much more control over what you create in life right now, than you do over your genetics. No matter what life throws at us, whether we’re subjected to natural disasters, large scale human destruction or individual family brutality and trauma, we all must struggle to rise above those events in order to create as great a life as we can. We can take charge of our efforts even though we can’t control the results.
Inspire your children by them to look back at their inheritance. Think of what their ancestors must have lived through. No matter what their ancestry, they come from an unbroken line of men and women who survived drought, flood, plague, famine, disease, war, uprooting, slavery, rape and every other form of disappointment, hostility, control, abuse, brutality and trauma known. Everyone one of their ancestors survived long enough to make a baby who grew up to make a baby who grew up to make a baby … until they were born. If one of their ancestors hadn’t grown up to do his or her part, they wouldn’t be here. They have a legacy of survivors.
Also think of their mental and spiritual inheritance. There must have been people who took in some of their ancestors and nurtured, encouraged and stimulated them; even though they weren’t blood relatives. Despite all the abuse and trauma, here they are. They have the legacy of survivors. Stop worrying about their genes and start training them to be mentally, emotionally and spiritually strong. Start helping them develop the discipline that’s worthy of all the struggle and effort that went into getting them here.
I remember the stories of what my grandparents went through in order to get here. They didn’t have credit cards, cell phones, health insurance or own their homes. How can I let them down by not living as gloriously as I can? How can I let them down by not encouraging my children to do the same – no matter what their genetics has given them?
Here in Colorado, the big news today is about a black teen acquitted for punching one of two teens who were taunting, harassing and threatening him. See below for details from some of the news stories.
Good for you Randall Nelson.
For parents of young children and teens, I'm commenting on one aspect that I often hear from well-meaning parents. They tell their children not to fight; fighting is wrong, it only leads to more fighting. They tell their children to understand that bullies have suffered and to forgive bullies. They tell their children that forgiveness, kindness and negotiation will solve every situation peacefully. As Randall Nelson's case illustrates for every teen, of any color, race, religion, sex, that's nonsense. So, what do I think Randall should have done?
I think Randall did great; just what he should have done. Randall Nelson tried not fighting back. That's a good first approach. He got the authorities involved. That's a good second step, but they didn't stop it. If those two steps don't work, you'd better have an effective back up plan. Randall had the right back up plan.
Parents, if you coerce your children and prevent them from fighting even as a last resort, you leave them like defenseless sheep in a world that has wolves. As I said about work bullies in a recent article in the Denver Business Journal (January 11, 2008, page A28),
"Bullies will interpret [your] reasonableness as weakness … They will remain hostile and righteous. They will escalate their emotional abuse into a feeding frenzy."
Teach your children and teens to protect themselves. Don't encourage them to endure verbal abuse or emotional intimidation. You'd be encouraging them to become insecure victims of bullies and predators. Instead, help increase their self-reliance, confidence and self-esteem. This theme of teaching children and teens to face the real work also mentioned in the blog entry, "Cyberbullying suicide case."