There’s a lot of information in the media and on the social web about bullying, but it’s hard to get a sense of what the facts are. Is bullying really an epidemic? Is it a growing problem, or simply and old problem gaining new, widespread recognition? How is bullying today different than it used to be?
The National Crime Prevention Council states, “Although bullying was once considered a rite of passage, parents, educators and community leaders now see bullying as a devastating form of abuse that can have long-term effects on youthful victims, robbing them of self-esteem, isolating them from their peers, causing them to drop out of school and even prompting health problems and suicide.” That said, it is important to acknowledge that our schools and other institutions have been relentless in their efforts to stop bullying.
As a community, though, there is much more that we need to do to eliminate bullying. Getting involved is the first step.
The article offers some compelling statistics courtesy of the U.S. National Institute of Health, SAFE, Tony Bartoli :
Every 30 minutes a teenager attempts suicide due to bullying.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post for parents about what school principals want them to know about bullying. I’d spent a morning consulting with all the principals of a major Quebec school board, and I was really impressed by how proactive, concerned and invested they were in solving the complicated issues around bullying. I was also struck by the obstacles they faced: the limited resources, lack of personnel, need to support their teachers, blurry legal requirements and often conflicted interactions with parents.
It was a real eye-opener for me. As a parent, I’d never fully understood what these men and women have to negotiate in school with our children every single day.
But I still have more to learn. On February 23rd, I was privileged to spend an entire day talking about bullying and risk behaviors with 65 teachers and school administrators from across the province and Ontario. This was part of the Centre for Educational Leadership‘s Distinguished Educators Seminar Series at McGill University.
It was clear from the beginning that they are very concerned. Like most educators, this group worried about the blurry line between school and home, the Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter interactions that spill over into fights and drama in the classroom and schoolyard. They knew that parents, not just students, were whipping up the rumour mill online and through email and texting campaigns when something happened with their kids. Small things become big things very quickly; misinformation and disinformation abound.
The amount of time spent managing these issues can quickly get out of hand and get in the way of the primary activity at school: teaching.
So what follows is a catch-all list of Things for Parents to Think About (for lack of a more imaginative title). It’s really an addendum to my earlier post, but highlights some key items. In a perfect world, there would be a seamless partnership between school and home. But in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to worry about bullying either.
Know what your child is doing. Who are his friends? What does she do after school? What online accounts do they have? What are their passwords? Who is she texting? Who is he Skyping? This one seems almost too obvious to put down. But it’s the most important. Because even well-meaning, involved parents can lose track of their kids’ day-to-day habits and activities.
Because as our kids grow up, they naturally pull away. And it happens in slow, almost imperceptible increments. One day we wake up to find the 10-year-old who tells you everything has turned into a secretive 13-year-old who thinks you don’t know anything.
Teachers — especially in grades 6-8 — often deal with parents who just have no clue about their kids’ social lives and daily dramas. They sign their report cards, pay for field trips and maybe even pack their lunches, but they don’t really know what’s going on inside their offspring’s hormone-riddled, rapidly developing brains and bodies. (See this post on the insightful Scott Fried about the secrets of teens). So when an incident happens, or guidance is needed, mom and dad aren’t prepared to properly parent.
Educate yourself about teen culture. Get a Facebook page. Know the difference between a tweet and a text. LOL every once in a while. Ask your kid to play you some of their favourite music. Watch an episode of Glee or the trailer for the Hunger Games or visit the World fo Warcraft website (or whatever your child adores). Not because you’re trying to be cool (you’ll never succeed in your child’s eyes) but because you are showing an interest in what his or her life is like. You’re making an effort to understand their cultural milieu. They may not admit it, but they’ll appreciate it. You might even find yourself having an actual conversation with the same kid who answered every other question with monosyllables.
Which brings me to my next point: Be your kid’s parent, not their friend. A lot of parents find this confusing. Don’t we want them to find us cool? Don’t we want them to confide in us, tell us things, hang out with us? Nothing wrong with that. All falls within the purview of parenting. But the line in the sand is respect. Our kids must respect our rules, values and attitudes. They must be willing to give back to the family in appropriate ways. They must not take us for granted, talk back or ditch us every time more exciting plans present themselves.
Friends operate on an equal playing field, and respect can (and should) be a part of that as well. But a parent-child relationship doesn’t function that way. Yes, as parents we still need to respect our children, explain the rationale for our reasoning (when appropriate, to help them learn), make reasonable compromises and let them grow up as distinct individuals. I’m not arguing for a military-style dictatorship. But our children sometimes need to conform to rules and expectations with which they don’t agree. Sometimes the negotiating has to end, and they need to accept a “because I say so” response.
When an incident arises at school, teachers and principals need to be able to count on parents who know the difference between advocating for our children’s best interests and over protecting them. Although we should be there to guide them, we can’t (and shouldn’t) shelter them from all adversity. Those natural consequences and occasional experiences of pain, frustration and stress are an important part of growing up. If they don’t learn it in measured doses while they are young, they will never learn to cope with the harder stuff life throws at them when they are adults.
Parent with your head, not just your heart. It’s agonizing to watch our children suffer social pain, bad grades, bullying or even the consequences of broken rules. No parent easily forgets the worry and dismay over a kid who misses a soccer game because of detention, gets kicked off a team, skips a school trip or develops nervous headaches and stomach problems because they are too stressed to go to school.
We serve our children’s best interests when we learn to strike a balance between our sad feelings for their hurt and our intellectual understanding of what’s really going on. Sometimes it’s entirely appropriate to march into the school office and demand action, but often we are more effective when we keep a cool head and evaluate a situation: get the full story from our child before we call the school. Speak to the teacher before we call the principal. Consider whether it’s possible that the same child who is so lovely with her grandma and the neighbour’s cat couldn’t also be the one who rallies the other girls to exclude a friend from their clique. Or post libellous comments about a teacher on a Facebook page.
This last one is perhaps the hardest thing we have to do as mothers and fathers, but also possibly the most important. Because when things get complicated and others are involved, we need to make level-headed decisions with the big picture in mind. Sometimes we can find ourselves dealing with an unreasonable school or an untenable situation, but in some cases WE are the ones generating the conflict or asking for rules to be bent. Since these are precisely the same expectations we have from our teachers and principals, it helps if we can be on board.
My editorial piece in today’s Montreal Gazette criticizes the Quebec government for taking the easy way out with its proposed anti-bullying legislation, Bill 56. Designed to appease parents, it also seems to place the blame on schools for not handling this complex issue properly. But lack of funding and resources, coupled with short-sighted, short-term solutions, have made it difficult for schools to deal with the problem of bullying.
When the government asks our kids to “right their wrongs” (according to the English slogan to be used in their planned $1 million ad campaign), I would ask Beauchamp to consider doing the same. To give this antibullying legislation hope of succeeding, she needs to consider some of the following things:
Help schools out with antibullying plan templates that have been developed through best practices. Offer them resources assembled by a panel of experts commissioned for this task. Schools can use these to put their plans together, so it doesn’t become a costly (and ineffective) makework exercise for school staff with no training in this area. Templates already exist for school social-media policies, bullying prevention and handling policies.
Put money into support services. Bullying doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Bullies need more than punishment – they need help to understand the consequences of their actions and rehabilitate. They need consistent, patient support from teachers, guidance counsellors and, sometimes, mental-health practitioners to learn impulse control, good judgment, empathy and conflict resolution. The students who are bullied often need help as well. Being labelled a victim can be incredibly disempowering, and it’s likely these children were already vulnerable. Ideally, these support services will be active in prevention: teaching tolerance and conflict resolution, particularly for students identified as at-risk for bullying or being bullied.
Invest in digital citizenship education. Banning Facebook on campus is the equivalent of sticking one’s head in the sand. Since today’s bullies often make use of cellphones, email and social media, students need to be taught how to use these powerful communication tools safely, with respect, dignity and awareness.
Think long-term. Antibullying initiatives are too often knee-jerk responses that don’t take social costs into account: reduced school performance, psychological problems, impact on family members, health-care costs, legal costs and schoolyard bullies who grow up to become workplace bullies. If the government is serious about using our tax dollars to right the wrongs, they need to move from these reactive policy inoculations to innovative long-term thinking.
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