Bullying: A Solvable Problem?
The times, they are a changing. A mere hundred years ago, people between the age of twelve and twenty were considered to be responsible adults who were required by circumstances to act on their own agency to solve their own problems. They worked, got married, and had children. Self-reliance and mediating minor altercations without involving central authority were the norm.
Today a longer learning curve is required for our youth to be adequately prepared for life in a more complex world. The result is the creation of a relatively new segment of society-teenagers. Teenagers are people who are caught in a double bind. They are cognitively capable of solving problems between themselves and others non-violently, but they are denied the freedoms and excused from the responsibilities of full-fledged citizens. They are treated like dependent children told by their elders, These are the best years of your life, enjoy them... but, if you are going to make it in this complex world you must compete, compete for the best college placement, compete for the best jobs or perhaps for the best college football team. Those who do not compete in this mainstream competitive world, or those who fail in the race to achieve, do not fit in. They are destined to become the victims of bullying.
Central authority, school administrators, teachers, counselors, police officers, etc. is charged with keeping the peace in our schools and in our communities.
According to USA Today April 5, 2010, A 'watershed' case in school bullying? Rick Hampson, Educational psychologists describe a new kind of bullying. The perpetrators are attractive, athletic and academically accomplished - and comfortable enough around adults to know what they can and can't get away with, in school and online.
We, as a society, have prolonged adolescence and dependence of our young people on their parents for financial support because of a necessity to prepare them for a more complex world thereby denying the opportunity for the newly created demography called teenagers to learn how to non-violently solve problems with each other in a real world environment.
At the same time, our need to protect our younger children from a perceived more dangerous society has encouraged us to structure their lives round the clock. We have eliminated the opportunity for younger children to learn how to interact with each other through creative spontaneous playtime. Some schools are employing recess coaches to organize kids into prescribed games monitored by adults; others are eliminating recess completely.
This is just how it is. We can't turn the clock back, nor should we. This is the real world of today, and we address it how we must. However, I maintain that we as adults must take responsibility to somehow replace that which has been sacrificed to progress.
There are a lot of well meaning blind folks groping the elephant and offering their pet solutions to our youth violence problem.
The criminal justice system promotes zero tolerance, more surveillance and stiffer punishments.
Legislators offer anti bullying laws.
The mental health system promotes medication and therapy for bullies and their victims.
The religious community thinks prayer, Bible reading, and extracting promises of abstinence from drugs and sex will do it.
Some blame the media for desensitizing us to gratuitous violence and explicit sex. Their solution is to censure sex and violence in the media, and in the video game industry.
Many think better gun control will prevent school violence. However, some think educators ought to be armed.
Victims are encouraged to seek help from adults and bullies are scolded into obedience.
Problems of violence and bullying however are more pervasively entrenched in our society than any of these potential solutions or even all of them combined can solve.
It's easy to play the blame game, and school personnel and parents are easy targets.
However, look at it this way. Perhaps we are all victims of our culture.
Ours is one of the most competitive societies in the world. When competition is mixed with violence, that is, as violence is required to win the game of football, violence both physical and digital, electronic bullying, can be seen as required to win the game of life.
Consider this. Even evangelicals have caved into the mainstream worship of violence, winning at the expense of others, and worshiping the winners. A small but growing number of evangelical churches have embraced mixed martial arts, a brutally violent sport that combines kickboxing, wrestling and other fighting styles in an effort to reach and convert young men, whose church attendance has been persistently low. Some ministers have stated the church has become too feminized over the years.
In South Hadley, Mass, an Irish girl, not one of the in-group, committed the grievous sin of dating a football star that was probably considered a prize by the girls who harassed her.
It should not surprise us that athletes who are accustomed to winning by using force, and their worshipping fans, would feel entitled to use violence, both digital and physical, to insure their superior status in the context of their immediate culture.
Ours is one of the most competitive societies in the world. Mix competition with violence and you have a very dangerous combination.
I have no illusions about broad societal changes, however. What football worshiping family is about to give up Monday night football? If evidence of a much higher risk of early dementia and Alzheimer's is the risk football players face is not a deterrent, what will cure our addiction to the sport? What Hollywood movie producer is going to give up the cash cow of producing violence worshipping movies? What computer game company is about to give up it's best selling games?
The number of teen suicides attributed to bullying speaks for itself.
Suicides open eyes to bullying By Jessica Meyers, The Dallas Morning News, April 11, 2010 reports the following. DALLAS A 13-year-old hangs himself in a Johnson County, Texas, barn. An 8-year-old jumps out of a two-story school building in Houston. From the same article, A 15-year-old freshman at Cleburne High School killed himself last year after classmates teased him about his facial scars. Also last year, an 11-year-old Massachusetts boy hanged himself after enduring daily taunts of being gay.
This year, a 15-year-old Irish high school student in Massachusetts, who had been tormented by peers, was found hanging in her stairwell. Nine teenagers were indicted on charges relating to her death last week.
Central authority is charged with keeping the peace in our schools and in our communities, and often blamed when things go wrong.
Suicide Massachusetts Bullying -Written by lssolutions on April 1, 2010.
School chief claims, We're unfairly blamed in bullying related suicide.
But not all the victims commit suicide. Predictably, some of them retaliate in other horrendous ways. Sport was allegedly a focus of attention in the violence that occurred in Littleton, Colorado, in the spring of 1999. The perpetrators of the violence allegedly identified athletes as targets and were described as being on the fringe of the high school social circles.
Consider a few headlines over the past couple of years.
14-year-old accused of hatching high school assault plot By Kathleen Brady Shea and Samantha Shepherd. There were three homemade grenades packed with black powder and BBs. There were 30 air-powered guns, modeled to look like real weapons. And there was a genuine 9mm weapon. Their owner was alleged to be a troubled teen who had been bullied so much by other students that he had been home-schooled for the last 18 months, officials said.
Three Teens Plead No Contest in Alleged Columbine-Style School Plot USA Today, reported by Robert Imrie, Associated Press writer, Green Bay, Wis. Prosecutors say the teens wanted revenge for bullying and other problems they had at school.
These potential tragedies were averted. However, we're not always so lucky. We are aware of those situations where bullied teens successfully took out their revenge on the bullies and innocent bystanders in their schools with tragic results.
Ours is one of the most competitive societies on earth, one where competition is laced with violence, coercion, and cheating. Children learn to worship the winners and bully those who are not either winners or fans of winners. Retaliation from victims should be expected.
Many think adults in charge should be accountable for the protection of students. Instead of being equipped with skills for non-violent problem solving, encouraged and empowered to act on their own behalf, students are being told to rely on authorities to protect them.
Bullying needs to be understood at the interactive level.
The Invisible Ward 8 by Eugene Robinson Truth Dig April 6,2010, aptly coins the term, a toxic peer-group culture.
Why don't observers of bullying stand up for the victims? It's a no-brainer. It's because they're scared of the bully. They might be next. So if it comes down to standing up for a victim or taking the side of the bully, many children will feel that they need to take the side of the bully.
Bullying is not something one kid does to another. It is something that happens between the bullies and the victims. It is the very culture of a school that needs to change. It doesn't work for an adult to simply give advice like, ignore the taunts, stand-up for yourself, etc. which in some cases can make things worse for the victim.
It doesn't work for adults to scold or shame bullies into submission, or even to punish them.
The natural environment for learning the skills necessary for peaceful problem solving has vanished. We cannot get it back. We need to provide a structured substitute for what has been lost.
Teenagers, not quite adults, not quite kids, and not quite jaded by the reality that life is not quite fair, might have an important edge for keeping minor altercations from escalating into violence. Given the skills, the encouragement to be self-reliant, a safe environment within which to practice those skills, and a culture that promotes and nurtures cooperation, they may be able to break the bully/victim cycle, at least in the simple context within which they live their everyday lives.
We need to teach our kids the skills with which to get along with each other even when they don't agree or when they don't like each other and when there is no prize other than a fair and safe environment within which to learn, to work, and to play.
Reciprocal cooperation is the best survival strategy for our species. Richard Dawkins.
I have no illusions about changing our entire culture. Our youth will continue to get a double message from a media obsessed with violence as a means of winning, parents, teachers, and other important adults who are addicted to competition and condoning violence as a means of winning.
However, perhaps it is possible to change the culture of small pockets of individuals who interact with each other on a regular basis. Reciprocal cooperation is most appropriate when there is no product or common goal to be achieved, other than peaceful coexistence, and when people are likely to encounter each other on a regular basis for an unspecified amount of time. The rules for reciprocal cooperation are simple and clear.
So, yes, central authority must take some responsibility for solving the bully/victim problem, but not simply by being vigilant to signs of depression, and rescuing children who are victims or children who are at risk. Keeping children and teenagers totally dependent on adults to catch me if you can and rescue me if you will is not a satisfactory solution. Our kids must be taught how to be more self-reliant, how to avoid the escalation of violence on both sides of a conflict. The skills of reciprocal cooperation can be taught, must be taught, routinely before there is an out of control problem, a suicide or a mass shooting in a school.
Teaching these skills can begin as early as preschool, and should be a routine part of every school's curriculum all the way through high school.