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I Got Another Puzzle For You*

geneandjack

Software has been developed to assist school principals in policing the online behavior of students; online behavior outside of school facilities and hours that is. Pointing out the folly of such a pursuit or the obscene waste of resources of such an endeavor is disheartening. As our public education system is eroding in rigor and well roundedness, do we really need yet another distraction? At what point are we Willy Wonka warning of yet another bad decision with hushed weary intonations of; “No. Stop. Don’t”?

The notion that a child’s behavior outside of school is the school’s business/problem is absurd. Unless the school is part of an orphanage it is not the school’s problem. The very idea that there could ever be any software program that could police all the children, in all electronic realms is simply science fiction. Children do stupid stuff. Kids can be mean. How they do this stuff is beside the point. Generations ago principals did not police finished basements, railroad tracks, bowling alleys and soda fountains. No doubt some principals at some point have cleaned graffiti off a bathroom wall, but they didn’t crouch in a corner ready to pounce upon the scribe (or at least I hope they didn’t.) Most of us of voting age were either bullied, a bully or a mix of the two at one point or another. It’s what kids do. Siblings torment siblings, classmates tease classmates, and kids terrorize neighbors (Boo Radley anyone?) It’s not nice, it’s nothing any adult is proud of, but it is part of growing up.

The issue is how children and the adults around them respond to such goings on. Bullying and extreme response to bullying both come from the same place; insecurity. Children are trying to find their way in the world and to feel some sense of control. A bully feels better about him or herself when they lord over someone. Being bullied feels crappy but should not feel like the end of the world. It becomes the end of the world when the bullying is unrelenting and perpetrated by many OR when the bullied is fragile. Fragility can take many guises but should be recognizable to parents. A fragile child does not have close (age appropriate) friends, reacts disproportionately to disappointment, and demonstrates excessive anxiety or (inward or outward) rage. Children who have trouble connecting to their world around them can be devastated by the sense that their world hates them. Children, particularly fragile children, are best served by having their world expanded. Multiple social networks (e.g., scouts, dance class, religious school, relatives, etc.) are an insurance policy against ostracization. Feeling good about one area of his/her life can be the light at the end of the tunnel for a bullied child.

The very idea that a principal should spend money and time trying to police the (often elusive) behavior of children is absurd. If there is that kind of time and money available perhaps we could get the arts back into the school? For decades arts, particularly theater, has been used with vulnerable populations to explore issues of empathy and self-esteem. Prisons and juvenile detention centers have changed lives with their theater arts programs. Children engaged in writing or visual arts projects learn about each other and find common ground. A school experience not based on physical agility or extroversion creates a more realistic environment for children. (Few adults have to make their way through every weekday by being popular.) Bullying and extreme response to bullying is about a response to lack of control. Adding more external control (which has no hope of being effective) completely misses the mark. Strong children are not built with surveillance systems. Strong children are built by a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Schools can play a part in that but to do so they need to focus on education not on in loco parentis.

*Oompa Loompa Song (1971) – Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2013 in Childhood, Education

 

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Mom and Pop Cop

Chief_Wiggum_Arresting_Bart

Nobody wants to (or can) police his or her child. From the moment they’re born children discover how to manipulate the world around them. The first thing a human discovers is that crying often results in having one’s belly filled. As children get older they (hopefully) learn more sophisticated means to get what they want. From a very young age they determine which parent is good for which needs. They also learn what information to hide to avoid unwanted repercussions. It is a very useful and normal developmental process. However it takes a crafty and confident parent to oversee such goings on. Children should be allowed their privacy and some secrets. It is only when there are signs of harm to self or others that all bets are off.

Hiding dangerous behavior is normal but not acceptable. Kids wrestling with eating disorders will go to great lengths to hide the effects and the behavior. Rarely will a kid come home and announce; “Guess what new drug I tried today?!” The same is true for proclamations of; “I totally humiliated a kid in gym today!” No, as we discussed above, kids are pretty savvy in getting what they want. And what most of them want is to not get in trouble. There’s no kid in the world (save a diagnosed sociopath) who does not know that being mean is bad. But kids are human and adults in training and as such are very susceptible to temptation. That is why they will drink (at all or too much), engage in dangerous stunts, sniff household products, develop food issues, etc. The world can feel out of control and very big to a child. Engaging in myopic behaviors is a way to gain control and shrink one’s world. Bullying is one harmful way to do just that. Bullying, unlike other alarming behaviors is not about self-harm. Bullying is a means of controlling one’s world. The bully lords over a created contained reality. There are leaders, followers and victims; and the players often change roles with lightning speed. There is no way that all parents can know what their children are doing at all times. Even parents glued to the side of their child cannot know what is going on inside their little heart and soul. No teacher or school administrator can know what is going on with every child at every moment. The first step is simply to accept this.

However once an adult does know what is going on it is the adult’s problem. Quite simply preventing a child from harming him or herself or others is one of the reasons parents (or guardians) were invented. By now we’ve all heard stories of parents of bullies or bullied who knew what was happening and did not take draconian measures. No doubt they intervened in some manner, but they did not stop it. The most glaring examples are those that involve cyber bullying. To not confiscate devices and disable accounts is tantamount to doing nothing. A Florida sheriff agrees, in theory, with this premise. Sheriff Judd did a little arresting. He grew so outraged that the parents of two bullies did not confiscate devices but instead insisted that their children’s accounts had been hacked, that he arrested them; the children that is. And that’s where Sheriff Judd and I would disagree. I’m not sure anyone in this very tragic case (the bullied killed herself) should be arrested. But if anyone should be legally held accountable it should be the adults who knew of the behavior and tried to cover it up. It’s a bit blithe to declare that “kids will be kids,” but there is some serious truth to that adage. It is not an excuse it is an explanation. Children do really stupid things, it’s how they learn and grow. It is also why they are assigned adults.

There is something terribly chilling about the long arm of the law stepping in for lax parenting. Maybe there is an explanation as to why these girls were allowed to be typing vitriolic Facebook posts taking credit for their (7th grade) classmate’s suicide. It’s difficult to imagine what it would be but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t exist. The sheriff was not interested in any explanation (understandably.) His primary concern was the of the children’s lack of remorse and their potential ability to continue victimizing. He rushed into arresting the (12 and 14 year-old) girls before completing the investigation. It is a very unfortunate means to an end. What these kids need is some empathy training based counseling and aggressive parenting. Neither of which is going to happen while locked up. Couldn’t a more sophisticated penal system order the parents to confiscate all devices and accounts and attend parenting classes? A judge could threaten parents with incarceration if they did not comply. Arresting children is rarely a solution for anything. They’ve been charged with stalking which would suggest that the parents of bullied children everywhere should/could be filing restraining orders and accusing bullies of stalking. I don’t know if anyone wants that to happen, but it’s good to have options. There is a mighty fine line to not cross when it comes to blaming parents for their children’s behavior. But there are also very clear-cut cases of parents being complicit in their children’s wrongdoing. We are sophisticated enough to discern between the two. Kids will be kids and hopefully parents will be adults.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2013 in Childhood, Well-Being

 

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The Mayor, The Giant & The Bad Smell

green giant

What does New York City, frozen green beans & deodorant have in common? Stumped? They are all backing self-esteem campaigns for kids. What is a self-esteem campaign, you ask? Well, NYC, Green Giant & Secret are splashing out on media that lets kids know they are good enough gosh darn it. There are subtle differences in the campaigns however. The beans and roll-on focus is on bullying, and NYC is on the side of positive body image.

Mayor Bloomberg is telling girls he loves them just the way they are. This $330,000 initiative is partly a visual campaign exalting girls of all shapes and colors and a fitness program. Mixed message aside, the point is to combat the imagery with which girls are daily confronted. The Giant & deodorant on the other hand are focused on victims of bullying. Their’s seems a much more bland campaign with the goal of prompting conversation. (Is anyone not talking about bullying these days?!) What these three initiatives have in common are targeting the victim.

None of this bullying propaganda deals with the bully. Green Giant implores parents to; “Help Her Stand Up To Bullying.” Interestingly, bullying almost by definition, suggest more than a one-on-one experience. The bullies are almost always plural and the bullied is most definitely singular. (That’s why it works!) Simple math would suggest that more bean buying parents have a bully at their table than a victim. Forgetting the misguided calculation for a moment; what in the world does it mean to “stand up to a bully?” How is it helpful to throw such platitudes around? The way to combat bullying is to grow strong children. Children who feel confident and secure do not bully. Children who are told (through words and deeds) that they are simply the best build arrogance not self-esteem. Strength comes from mastering challenges not from trophies and ribbons. All children want to be liked (and hopefully grow out of that weakness by the time they’re parents.) It is perfectly natural for a child to crumble from bullying. As long as that child has friends, interests and activities outside of the bullying vortex they should be fine. But suggesting that he/she is somehow at fault is not fine.

A (meager) $330,000 campaign aimed at convincing girls they’re beautiful is also not fine. This drop in the bucket is ridiculous at best and patronizing at worst. Girls are raised in an overt feminized, and sexualized environment today. They are swathed in pink and glitter and bombarded with objectifying imagery. There are high-heeled shoes in toddler sizes now. Perhaps a campaign encouraging parents to turn off the television, stop buying celebrity magazines and get a little more gender neutral would have an impact. (Surrounding little girls with princess narratives and imagery is not terribly empowering.) Trying to grow strong girls in a climate of hair extensions, false eyelashes, silicone, twerking and botox is not easy. A subway poster or youtube video isn’t really gonna change much of anything. Particularly if they get off the subway and are confronted with softly pornographic posters in the station and above ground.

I don’t doubt everyone’s good intentions, but nothing short of being all in is going to work here. Focusing on the victims not only sends the wrong message but is simply not effective. If the bean people really want to be a meaningful voice in the bully conversation how about a graphic novel-esque serial of the Jolly Green Giant instigating an online attack against Sprout? This comic strip could illuminate the weakness and insecurity of the Giant and Sprout could demonstrate coping skills. If NYC is worried about the body image of its smallest female residents, perhaps Mayor Bloomberg could hire models to do before and after photos? Children could see the smoke and mirrors for themselves. At the end of the day it’s really hard to combat the 24/7 buzz. Girl children have never had so many negative messages and role models. There are so many ways and so many chances for girls to be objectified. There are new ways (every day) for bullies to hide and perpetrate their self-medicating ways. We (the grown-ups) created this and we can fix it. There isn’t one answer, it’s more of a collective of measures. Children have different needs and parents are in the best position to address them. One method that will never work, however, is to blame the victim.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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This Land Is Our Land

Even if you’ve been buried in sand (umbrella drink in hand) or up to your elbows in zucchini plants, you’ve probably heard certain rumblings of the past two weeks: Where are the statements from the president or presumptive nominee on gun control? Could there possibly be a better time or a more receptive nation to which to deliver a strong message? Are the “candidates’” faith in the electorate such that any poking of the NRA with a stick is simply not worth the risk? No doubt you have heard or made all of these arguments over dinner, at the farmer’s market or in the cabana. It is hard for us mere mortals, those of us not actively working on a presidential campaign, to wrap our minds around the silence. To most of us there is nothing politically incorrect about limiting access to semi-automatic weapons.

No doubt the “candidates” have their eyes on a much larger picture than you or I. But it’s hard to imagine what could be more significant or legacy building than diminishing carnage. It’s a given that both political parties have clever people working for them who perhaps specialize in artistic wordsmithing. A powerful, compassionate statement is easily within their reach. A statement, which in fact even the NRA would not take serious issue. A statement that addressed the human lives snuffed out every single day, while honoring the intent of the second amendment.

What is encouraging is that people, who are not running for the highest office in the land, are speaking out. Mayors, religious leaders and the police are talking publicly about mental health, limiting firearm purchases, creating safe havens, changing the culture, etc. While it doesn’t change our unease with the ear splitting silence at the top, it offers hope. The NRA’s power stems from being a well-organized group of like-minded individuals. Yes, their power probably cannot be overstated, and yes they have succeeded in being just as threatening as the products they defend. But that doesn’t mean they cannot be successfully challenged. Bullies in fact rarely back down because an authority figure orders them to do so. More often it is the bullied, often times collectively that gives the bully a mighty cease and desist ass kicking. The timing is right for all of us to get ticked off and lay our own claim to the constitution (and while we’re at it the flag.)

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2012 in Cultural Critique

 

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The People On The Bus

I never had to ride a bus to school, and that was a blessing.  To this day I’m still a little wary of them.  Rare class trips confirmed that they were the ideal breeding ground for my anxiety; an enclosed space with mysterious and opaque social rules and customs.  Where you sat and with whom was evidently meaningful to other riders.  On those rare trips I knew enough to stay clear of the back of the bus.  Even as a very small person I sensed that no good could come from being so far away from an adult.  As a younger child those seats seemed very high and quite conducive to hiding bad behavior.  Bad behavior has always frightened me.

A story of a bus matron (which we did not have on our class trips) being verbally abused by children does not surprise me.  Children are people.  Some people are lovely some are disgusting and some fall somewhere in-between.  What does seem inconceivable to me however is that this behavior would have continued for any amount of time.  It stands to reason that at least a handful of children on that bus are little versions of me.  They were frightened by the behavior.  The thought of getting on that bus every morning made their stomachs hurt.  They told their parents.  They asked to be driven to school.  They explained that they’re bad kids on the bus.  There is no vow of secrecy or non-disclosure agreement on the bus.  These are not members of organized crime.  They’re just kids that happen to live along the same bus route.  Someone (if not many) told.  Kids tell.

Following that theory (and it is just a theory, devoid of any factual support whatsoever) could it be that the parents did nothing to stop it?  Once we get past our shock, it does sound plausible, no?  Don’t we tend to assume that things are not our business?  Don’t we usually duck and dive under a bush to avoid any form of confrontation (unless it’s from the confines of our car and involves obscene gestures, or through anonymous comments on the web?)  Despite all government pleading, how many times do we really see something and say something?  Do we “suffer” through a broken streetlight, or wonky elevator?  Or do we fill out a maintenance report?  Do we gape, horrified at teenage girls pulling their tops up on the side of the highway?  Or do we explain how those photos they’re taking might someday limit their options in life?

Hopefully we speak up.  Hopefully we’ve been on the planet long enough to understand the dangers of silence.  Hopefully every day we choose to tip the balance away from disgusting and towards lovely.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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