About halfway through kindergarten, one of my sons came home complaining about a bully on the school bus. The whole story, once teased out, was a classic. His tormenter turned out to be a boy four years older who had a steady stream of targets. He was partial to pinning his victim du jour to the floor, where he could kick them out of sight of the driver. The other kids on the bus all had his number, and plenty of opinions about his choices of targets and methods, but the elaborate code they shared was more derived from “Desperate Housewives” than “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.”
Like any well-intentioned parent, I tried talking to my boy. About staying out of it, about asking for help, about the futility of pleasing the bully and gaining popularity with the rest of the miscreants on the bus. I volunteered to drive him to school, but this only made him wail louder. At long last, he was big enough to ride the bus by himself and I was going to deprive him of it? I tried talking to the driver, but that only made me question Minnesota’s drivers’ licensing standards.
In short, I was worse than useless. (Yes, I did unleash a can of whoop-ass on some grownups, if you’re wondering. But that’s a separate story.) I was still flailing around in search of an effective response when, one day, the fight literally tumbled down the stairs and out of the bus, onto the sidewalk where the woman with the genial baritone who oversees transportation saw it. She pulled the bigger boy off my son, marshaled help, and sent my bruised darling to the nurse, who called me.
By the time I got there, a teacher had conducted a healing circle in which my son and his tormenter were encouraged to talk about what they liked about each other and to make a plan for being friends. The school organized a bus safety plan that revolved around co-opting the offender by giving him an orange vest and responsibility for keeping order.
My boy? What can I say. In the name of “healing,” he was forced to say nice things to his much-older antagonist and then to recognize the bully’s shiny new authority. He got the message that he somehow owned half the responsibility for the affair. And because he was singled out for tormenting, he also ended up with the message that there’s something fundamentally unlikeable about him.
If any of this sounds at all familiar to you, you will not be surprised to hear the twisted coda to the whole sorry saga: The next two years were a virtual Bullypalooza, with my son trying fruitlessly to gain the approval of a succession of junior thugs in the hope of landing on the inside for once, and my credibility as a protector was shot. (That can of whoop-ass? I got plenty more chances to fruitlessly suggest that the school might want to do more than read The Ant Bully every year.)
I thought about that well-intended, deeply stupid healing circle the other day while reading Barbara Coloroso’s The Bully, the
Bullied, and the Bystander. A writer and parenting expert, Coloroso was commissioned to write a book about bullying in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, which took place in her hometown of Littleton, Colo., in 1999. It’s a remarkable book, with an interesting back story. According to an interview she granted the Montreal Mirror upon the book’s 2003 publication, Coloroso spent four months working on a first manuscript only to realize it had a fundamental flaw and she needed to start over.
Thank goodness for that, because the epiphany that ensued gave birth to the central revelation that makes the book so brilliant: Bullying is not about conflict — it’s about contempt. Conflict is a two-way street, so its resolution involves more than one person. Sitting the abuser and the target down for a round of friendship exercises presumes that they both have something to apologize for. Totally kumbaya — except that for one of the kids it’s a setup.
“There is no conflict to be resolved,” writes Coloroso of these conflict-resolution efforts. “The bully merely puts on his charm for the adults and shows the obligatory remorse — this just another act with new lines. The bullied child gets no relief, no support, and the bully learns no genuine empathic or prosocial behaviors. … The bullying will likely continue.”
What’s more, conflict-resolution exercises don’t address the bully’s issues, either. According to Coloroso, the contempt underlying the abuse arises from three apparent psychological traits: a sense of entitlement, intolerance toward difference, and the liberty to exclude.
(If, like mine, your kid attracts bullies because he’s a square peg, you might also want to check out The Unwritten Rules of Friendship, by Natalie Madorsky Elman and Eileen Kennedy-Moore.)
Indeed, some of the best, most compassionate segments of the book are written for bullies and their parents. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many kids move from one role to another; often the previously bullied evolve into enabling bystanders or into bullies themselves.
In addition to being willing to listen to hard truths and to endorse resolutions that defer to the victim, Coloroso urges parents of kids who’ve crossed the line to teach empathy. A chapter on family styles helps to illustrate why this is harder for some households than others. Some are rigid, some wildly inconsistent. “Embarrassment, humiliation, and shaming might make a parent feel good about doing something besides physically punishing, but they are unlikely to change the behavior of the bully,” she writes. “He will probably avoid taking responsibility for the wrongdoing, concentrating more on how badly he is being treated than on what he did that initiated the punishment.”
I understand the impulse to settle kids dustups by landing on everyone with both feet: “You’re both staying in from recess,” or “That’s it you’ve all lost Friday Fun Day.” We all know how exhausting it is to sift the whining from the laments that need navigational assistance.
I’d venture that the same compassion fatigue is behind adults’ seeming blindness to the violence and power plays that can overtake the unstructured spaces Coloroso makes a point of singling out: Playgrounds, buses, bathrooms. I don’t know how often you eat lunch with your kids, but there are few settings more evocative of Lord of the Flies clichés than the modern lunchroom, patrolled by a couple of busy cafeteria monitors.
No wonder kids don’t talk to us about bullying; we don’t listen. We minimize, we rationalize, and we suggest ways in which the target can make him- or herself more invisible. What we don’t seem to do often enough is to take kids seriously — particularly about the magnitude of the trauma. “Twenty-three percent of the students bullied and 71 percent of the teachers reported that teachers intervened often or almost always,” Coloroso writes. “Parents and teachers greatly underestimated the frequency of bullying when compared with student responses.”
Helpfully, she supplies a list of things parents and teachers should watch for, as well as gentle ways to broach the subject with a kid who’s too dejected to open up. There’s also a section on helping bystanders become morally responsible witnesses, and a list of tactics Coloroso believes will backfire (including a list of smart-ass retorts that bears a striking resemblance to a list endorsed by Bullyproof Your Child author Keith Vitali, who somehow manages to both cite Coloroso’s research and advocate martial arts as a response).
Life has gotten immeasurably better for my son. I eventually got to slay a few dragons on his behalf, but really mostly what I did was listen to him, take him seriously, and smile patiently while some well-meaning grownup elsewhere in his life explained to me that kids will be kids and should be left to work it out themselves — and then insist that his rights be enforced vigorously. In turn, he learned a whole lot about empathy.
Not long ago, a new bully turned up at his school. I listened to several hair-raising stories about the little miscreant, waiting to hear that he’d turned his sights on my boy. Why, I eventually asked, was his classmate working so hard to make himself the big kid on the playground? “Mom,” he replied, complete with eye-roll, “he’s new, and he’s trying to fit in.”
Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.