October is the perfect month to place what is now the leading form of child abuse before our nation’s conscience since most serial bullies go shopping for targets in September and by this month cornered their prey.
It was in October that an Idaho elementary school principal told me, “One of my students wasn’t bullying a boy he bullied the year before. So I said to him, ‘It’s great that you’re not bullying Jarod.’ He said, ‘I found somebody new.’ Worst of all, he had a smile on his face.”
Numerous schools this month will foster flash mobs, dramas, dance routines, and cafeteria-centered videos, among other anemic efforts that sparkle with a look-at-me energy but lack the power to reduce bullying. That’s because according to the Department of Health & Human Services 10-year landmark study, these well-meaning efforts won’t foster what’s truly needed to put bullies on their heels: courageous bystander intervention.
Bystanders possess the most potential power to diminish bullying through the deployment of assertive but non-violent peer pressure. And studies show that most students know and feel bullying is wrong when witnessed.
Yet only a measly 13% ever help targets. This is because mental awareness and emotional sympathy are not enough to right a social wrong. The missing ingredient during this pivotal month is fostering courage–a capacity flash mobs never provide.
The right thing and the hard thing are usually the same thing when it comes to combatting social ills. When it comes to anti-social bullying, the hard thing is compelling students to spend social capital upon marginalized classmates. Supporting such targets may knock a bystander down the social ladder–but it may help him or her climb it, depending upon what that school and community values.
These values define a school’s culture, which is revealed when a teacher turns her back. Parents and guardians, more than teachers, define this culture by what they emphasize at home. And right now what we’re emphasizing is pathetic, revealing a cultural problem, not a “school problem.”
Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project asked students what their parents valued most. Their me-centered answers? Their children’s happiness, self-esteem, and accomplishments. None help rear children who are caring, kind, courageous, responsible and just–the kind needed to reduce bullying. Instead, says Co-Director Richard Weissbourd, we should tell our children, “The most important thing to me is not that you are happy but kind and happy.”
Mature and healthy parents and guardians–not teachers and related faculty–must lead this effort if we’re serious about reducing school violence, drop-out rates, drug use and related ills associated with bullying.
Another powerful alley in battling bullying is high-school athleticism. Athletes often set the moral or ethical thermostat in most youth gatherings. They’re the rock stars, and some are spending their social cache upon targets.
Like Carson Jones, starting quarterback for Queen Creek High School in Arkansas. He quietly and courageously enlisted his fellow players to befriend and defend Chy Johnson, a physically and mentally challenged girl who once had “trash thrown at me” but now credits them for saving her life.
Like Minnesota high school quarterback Kevin Curwick, who wasn’t bullied but grew indignant when others were. He became what we call a “cyber-supporter,” starting a Twitter account that only includes positive and uplifting messages about classmates. After I challenged high school students in Plano, Texas to do the same, one student’s account had 116 followers–in less than 53 minutes!
Our children will commit heroic acts when given heroic tasks to accomplish. But they need courage before entertainment.
Aristotle among others told us that courage is a muscle: It only grows when flexed–not by watching a flash mob, playing a role in a skit, giving a speech, or standing elegantly on point.
They must commit acts of selfless courage themselves. It’s a challenge but, as our experience tells us, it’s doable when we move the harder but better direction this month and months to come.
Paul Coughlin is an expert witness regarding bullying and the law, a former newspaper editor and is the author of numerous books, including Raising Bully-Proof Kids. He is the Founder of The Protectors: Freedom From Bullying-Courage, Character & Leadership for Life, which provides a comprehensive and community-wide solution to adolescent bullying in schools, summer camps, faith-based organizations, and other places where bullying can be prevalent.