An End To Bullies
Our country is long overdue for a serious talk about bullying.
And when I say a serious talk, I don’t mean the same old talks we’ve been having since the 80’s. This is not a conversation about teaching our children to be assertive. This is not a conversation about telling our children to report bullies to the teacher right away. This isn’t even (just) a conversation about ignoring bullies and walking away.
Because let’s be honest: we’ve been doing that for forty fucking years and none of it works.
News flash, parents. If your child gets assertive with a bully there’s a good chance he’s going to get his ass kicked. He knows that instinctively, and that’s why he doesn’t do it. Actively confronting someone who wants to harm you is how you start a fight, not prevent one.
If your child tells a teacher about a bully, there’s a good chance he’s going to get his ass kicked for that, too. It doesn’t usually take a genius to figure out why. Right after you threaten to beat someone up, a teacher is suddenly talking to you about misbehaving. Bullies may not traditionally be A+ students, but they’re quite savvy to that kind of thing.
If your child ignores a bully and walks away, the good news is that he might not get his ass kicked. The bad news is that he’s going to be emotionally plagued for days, weeks, maybe the rest of his life. So begins a profound pattern of insecurity that is probably just as bad as or worse than getting his ass kicked.
None of this stuff is hard to figure out. It takes maybe one real life encounter with a bully. And yet, at this very moment, we are still teaching these useless strategies to our children like some kind of time honored tradition.
Bullying is worse than it’s ever been. It’s moved online, become anonymized, and driven record breaking numbers of children to suicide, mass violence, and more. There are federal, state, and municipal initiatives all over the country aiming to stop the bully culture from thriving, and it’s all failing because it all continues to completely miss the point.
Nearly every anti bullying campaign I’ve ever seen is destined to fail for the same reason. It actually reinforces everything that bullies believe about the world.
When you turn to face a bully and stand up to him, you’re saying, “Yes, this is a power dynamic, and I challenge your power in this situation.” Sometimes it works, because it catches a bully off guard and he doesn’t know how to respond.
Great. That one time. But the victory is both false and short lived.
Once that happens a few times, here’s what you’re left with: a bully who still believes life is a series of power challenges, who has learned to adapt to the surprise of being challenged. Next time, he’s not going to be shocked. He’s going to calmly assess the odds, and if he’s stronger (and let’s be honest, he usually is) he’s going to call your ill conceived bluff.
Bam. Black eye.
Please stop telling your children to do this. It’s short sighted and wrong minded. Do not stand up to bullies!
Telling an adult is at least closer to the point, although it doesn’t work because in the end adults handle it all wrong as well.
What happens when a child reports a bully to an adult is merely a temporary shifting of the power dynamic to someone (theoretically) stronger than the bully. The same old notion that life is a hierarchy of strength is once again reinforced in the bully’s mind. This time, he loses. But – importantly – he doesn’t lose to the person he was bullying.
Now you have a bully with a vendetta, and he knows he’s stronger than the kid who turned him in because that kid didn’t dare to challenge him face to face. Sure, the little weakling got away this time, but next time?
Bam. Black eye.
Do not tell your children to report bullies to teachers!
The closest piece of advice to the truth is when you tell your child to ignore the bully and walk away. It’s incomplete, but it’s close.
Ignoring a power challenge does something really remarkable. It tells the bully, “This assertion of power is not relevant enough to warrant my attention.”
That is the ultimate message we need to be communicating to bullies. Life is not a power struggle. We are not animals.
The problem with telling your child to ignore the challenge and keep walking is that it doesn’t address the unseen depths of the emotional struggle that bullied children are forced to endure. It leaves them feeling like they aren’t up to the challenge, so they’ve run away from it. Given time and space to grow, this insecurity can lead to fears later in life that become their own kind of bully.
Nor does it address the bully’s deeply ingrained belief that overwhelming force is the key to respect.
Walking away is not a solution; it’s a workaround. And just like anything in life, from mathematics to manufacturing, if you simply employ workarounds without ever solving the real problem, you never get the sense of mastery that comes from solving the real problem. That’s the emotional damage being done to your child.
Furthermore – and more to the point – the real problem is never solved.
What we really need is a way to acknowledge the extent to which ignoring bullies is a successful strategy, while also examining the breaking-off point where it fails to address the underlying problem. What we need, in fact, is to comprehend the underlying problem so that we can continue down the correct path after our children walk away.
As I said earlier, the chief thing that ignoring a bully accomplishes is the diminishing of the relevance of a power struggle in the first place. Bullies believe that being stronger than others is a privilege. They use it to fluff their own sense of importance in the world, and ignoring the challenge denies them that satisfaction. It also creates an opportunity for them to reconsider the usefulness of bullying others.
What it does not do, by itself, is change their outlook on the overall importance of power plays.
Because that one incident in which your child ignores a bully is just a drop in the bucket.
Elsewhere in his life, he’s seeing near infinite examples that reinforce his authoritarian understanding of the world. Ironically, many of those examples are even situations where misguided adults are trying to correct his behavior. The occasional kid walking away from his challenge is not enough to counterbalance the constant presence of authoritarian intimidation in his life.
This is where we’re failing our children. We aren’t taking the reins when we should be.
Dealing with a bully requires a subtle hand, not an iron fist. We must remain aware of the message we’re sending to bullies, and we must ensure that it’s not the same message that enticed him to displays of power in the first place. The problem of bullying quite simply cannot be solved through dominance, because the problem of bullying is dominance.
Instead, we need to disassociate dominance from accomplishment in the mind of the bully. We need to lead the way by accomplishing our goals without dominating him.
Here are some ways we can accomplish it.
First, we should continue to tell our children that the proper way to handle a power challenge is to ignore it and keep walking, calmly. That was some decent advice all along.
But we can take it a step further. Tell your children to stay out of those situations in the first place. Stay near adults. Stay away from lesser traveled paths and halls. Don’t give anyone the chance to challenge you in the first place.
Teachers, pay attention to your students. Are there places where bullies like to operate because there are never adults around? Make sure there are always adults in those places. Don’t let a bully’s safe haven remain a safe haven. Flush them out.
The name of the game is to prevent as many opportunities as possible for bullies to experiment with intimidation. Minimize the positive reinforcement they acquire by repeated success by minimizing their successes.
The next step is for parents. Don’t be a fucking coward.
Don’t tell your child to tell a teacher. Tell your child to tell you. You are foremost responsible for your child’s wellbeing. Own the responsibility.
Your child is afraid of bullies. We all are. Don’t put the burden of dealing with them onto his shoulders.
Your child needs to know that when he’s having problems with a bully it will be taken care of. He needs a safe way to communicate his problems to someone who cares about him, and that someone is you. Let him simply tell you and then forget about it, secure in the knowledge that you’ll handle it.
With you he doesn’t have to worry about being embarrassed. With you he doesn’t have to worry about retaliation. With you he doesn’t have to worry about the bully finding out that he told someone.
Then, parents, you tell the teachers. Tell them who, when, what, how, and where. Because the teachers can use that information to identify people and places that need continued attention. Don’t make it about punishment or revenge. Don’t demand a confrontation. Just give them the information. A confrontation is not what the situation calls for.
In addition to cutting off the opportunity for a bully to ply his trade in the first place, there’s another important strategy for teachers to remember. This one is the single most important.
When a known bully isn’t acting like an asshole, be kind to him. Reverse his positive association with power. Teach him to associate positive results with being well behaved. Compliment him for doing something helpful, for acting appropriately, or for being kind to someone else. This is the very heart of the problem: bullies are children who don’t get that reinforcement anywhere else in their lives.
Bullies are more than just assholes. They have assholes for parents. They surround themselves with asshole friends. And when good people stand up to them or resist them, they think of us as assholes too. Constant confrontation is never going to fix the underlying problem – on the contrary, it only makes it worse.
Nor is there a quick and easy way to put an end to bullying. It requires a culture change, not on the part of the bullies or their parents but on the part of those of us who are supposedly a better class of people. Bullies don’t change because they can’t. They’ve never been shown the way.
That’s our job: to show them the way.