It is very easy to find the term anti-bully these days. Look in any school and there’s a good chance you’ll see it on the walls. Look in the news and you’ll see governments (state, local, school) using it. It’s a term that has started making me cringe. For four quite different reasons.
The first problem comes with the definition of the word bully and its extension, bullying. I could poll everyone in the audience for a definition and get a different answer from each of you. In fact, I did that at a middle school last year. I gave students three minutes to write down everything they thought was covered by the term bullying. They came up with 89 different, distinct answers. This is a problem because it affects communication.
If every student in your school pledges to refrain from bullying, each of them is pledging according to their definition. This means Jim can cross his heart and vow to never bully, then turn around and go back to calling Rodney a fag for the seventeenth time that day without breaking his promise. Jim doesn’t think that’s bullying – he thinks bullying is beating someone up.
Since the term has become a buzzword, it has become a lazy way to get attention or to describe a negative action. It is not an exaggeration to say school administrators are having to explain that giving someone a nasty look is not bullying. Calling someone a name is not bullying, but calling them a name every day for three months is. As one assistant principal said to me recently, there is a difference between being a jerk and being a bully. With the broadening of the definition of bullying, the idea of zero-tolerance towards bullying is farcical at best.
The final definition problem is that kids simply don’t use the term when they speak to each other. When it’s just a word adults use, it has a large credibility problem.
We can work to fix many aspects of this problem by being more specific when describing undesirable behaviours. Instead of saying bullying, say fighting, teasing, name-calling, humiliating. You’ll notice a difference.
The second problem with creating anti-bullying schools is that most adults don’t understand the problem. The 1980s were a golden age for high school movies. One of the features of those movies, apart from Molly Ringwald, was the bully character. We had Biff in “Back to the Future”, Daniel’s foes in the “Karate Kid”, the bad guys in “Revenge of the Nerds”, and James Spader in basically everything. These movies presented us with a big bad bully – someone who picked on the little, unpopular kids. That image has stuck with us, as a society.
The problem with that image is that it’s not real. I know, you’re shocked that something in a Hollywood movie isn’t real. Last year a study that was publicized in the New York Times showed that most of the bullying is happening between kids that are close to each other in the ever-changing pecking order. They are mean and aggressive in order to propel themselves up the ladder of cool. Name-calling, rumours, exclusion, humiliation, and old-fashioned violence are tools used to advance one’s status at the expense of another. This is why so many kids hate their best friends.
The silver lining of that study showed that the top 2% on the cool scale were not bullying. They’d reached the pinnacle and didn’t need to fight any more. If we can harness the potential power of these kids, we could influence a student body in ways we can only dream of.
One thing missing from 80s movies was the internet. The internet plays an enormous part in the lives of our children. Understandably, it is also involved in a lot of the social jockeying. I imagine all of you think you have a pretty good idea of what cyber-bullying is; what it looks like. I also imagine you’d be shocked if you actually saw it in action. It is violent and disgusting and relentless. It is soul crushing. While we’re stuck in our 80s movies world, we also reference our own bullying experiences and say, “I know it’s tough, but you’ll get through it.” When your kid tells you you have no idea what they’re going through, you can believe them on this one. We need to realize that the potential for meanness has increased a million times since we were kids.
The third problem I see with anti-bullying measures is the power of labeling. When you call someone a bully, you are labeling them. You’re putting them in a pile with other bullies. This gets tough when kids refuse to play with bullies. When they walk the halls and see signs saying No Bullies, or No Bully Zone, they see they don’t belong. Bullies become outcasts.
When you consider that much of the behaviour that falls under bullying can come from a lack of social skills, you can see that this is a sinkhole. Those problems interacting with others are made more difficult by the label, so the behaviours that got them there come out again. And repeat.
Bully is a sticky label at school. Students remember it. Parents remember it. Teachers remember it. All of those people talk. Once that label has been stuck on your forehead, it’s tough to get it off. Students go home and are told to keep away from the bully by their parents. They’re told not to invite them to birthday parties. Teachers pass the information along to the next grade level team. “Watch out for Rachel, she’s a bully.” Imagine the fate of the kindergarten kid who is having trouble learning how to interact with others in January and is labeled a bully. That kid has to live with that, or do an amazing repair job, all the way through high school.’
The final problem I see is that promoting an anti-bully policy is focusing on a negative. I’d prefer to stand for something positive than stand against something negative. I don’t think that’s an uncommon feeling. So, what’s my solution? I’m glad you asked.
I worked at a YMCA camp for twelve years. It was a great testing ground for theories on working with kids. When I was working directly with kids I was told it was a good idea to make rules the first night. These rules all tended to start with the word “don’t”. Don’t run. Don’t throw sticks. You know the drill. The problem with those sorts of rules is that they’re easy to exploit.
- “Jim, remember our rule – don’t throw rocks.”
- “This isn’t a rock, it’s a pebble.”
- “Okay, we need to add a rule when we get back to the cabin.”
So we add some rules. Don’t throw stones, don’t throw sticks, don’t throw pebbles, don’t throw chipmunks. Every day there’s something new to not throw.
When I got into a director position, I decided to change things around. I created some new camp rules. The first was, “Leave it on the ground.” That took care of all projectiles right there. There were also:
- “Love your feet” – instead of Don’t go barefoot.
- “Let the wild things be wild” – instead of don’t pick up the snake, chipmunk, snapping turtle…
- “Keep track of your counselor” – because they might get lost… instead of don’t leave your counselor.
- “Avoid large trucks”. – we were building a new dining hall.
The change in atmosphere at camp was palpable. Kids paid attention when we explained the rules because they weren’t like all of the other rules they were used to. Counselors and campers both understood the rules and why they were in place. It was easy to refer to the rules.
Focusing on the positive can also bring more people into the conversation. At one school there was a large poster with the number of office referrals on it as a motivation to reduce that number. Some kids took it as a challenge to increase the number. However, by flipping it, and showing the percentage of students who had not received a referral, hundreds of kids were recognized and appreciated.
Too often we tell kids what not to do, but forget to tell them what to do. If we build a positive environment with ample examples of positive behaviours, we can change the formula.
My thinking is that building a pro-hero school is greater than building an anti-bully school.
As definition was my first concern with bullying, I owe you a definition for the word hero. A hero is someone who takes action for the good of others despite a risk or sacrifice. That is, when a hero sees something they know to be wrong, they do something about it. There are ample opportunities for heroism in schools.
The number one reason negative behaviours happen in school is that the student body allows it. The default response when one sees something happening that is wrong is to do nothing – to be a bystander. The opposite of a hero is not a villain, it’s a bystander. The goal of my work and others like me is to turn bystanders into heroes.
With a school of heroes administrators won’t have to worry about eliminating problems one by one with tailor made programs that focus on the negative. A school with a large population of heroes won’t have bullying. It won’t have vandalism. It won’t have drug issues. It will have learning. It will have long-lasting relationships. It will have smiles.