Thursday, August 13, 2009

The War on Bullies

In Slate this week, an article by Alan Kazdin and Carlo Rotella about how do deal with bullies. It starts by telling you that all of your instincts about what to do when you child is bullied at school are wrong.
  • Option 1 is to get your kid to stand up to the bully. Wrong. Selection is at work here. Your sophisticated bully has already selected your kid on the basis that they are unlikely to be effective in standing up to them. The bully has more knowledge about this than you as a parent so don't try this one.
  • Option 2 is to ignore it. Wrong. Apparently this could put your child on a path that leads possibly to suicide.
  • Option 3 is to take care of it yourself. May be effective but wrong. To quote:
Some parents are tempted to kick the bully's ass themselves. Taking matters into your own hands might be satisfying while it lasted (to the extent that you find pleasure and honor in beating up kids), but it's illegal and wrong, and it would probably do more harm than good.
  • Option 4 is to leave it to the teachers. Wrong. Once again your discerning bully is an expert in avoiding teacher scrutiny and that is unlikely to change. Get them once and you only make them stronger.
So what do you do? Apparently, quite a lot. You have to gather information, not blame your child, problem solve with your child, and mobilise an entire army of people -- the child, teachers, peers, the Muppets -- to launch a coordinated strategy the planning of which would leave the D-Day landings to shame but is, when it comes down to it, less dependent on weather conditions. You may recall that Bart and his friends adopted this strategy to great effect in The Simpsons against Nelson and his bullying co.

Of course, that reminds me of other episodes of The Simpsons where Bart decides to become a bully himself but while the Slate writers don't put that down as an option I am pretty sure they will find some reason that is bad.

Looking at the whole shebang here made me see bullies and the pure social costs they seem to engender and wonder if a disproportionate and unjustified jail term might be in order. It just seems like a crappy problem all up.

That said, I remember when Child No.1 was in 1st Grade and she was upset because all of the children were giving her a nickname that was a natural rhyme for her name. Now just as you start speculating on what that might be, let me help by assuring you that the name was not dirty and in fact not derogatory at all. Quite innocent in fact. It was also a name that we had realised she would be called when we named her. We got lots of "you do know that rhymes with ..." etc. So there was a sense that I knew this was a day that was coming.

So how did I deal with this? First, I gathered information and sure enough it was your garden variety teasing based on some low hanging fruit. Then I didn't blame her and moved on to problem solving. So far so good. I had actually fallen on the expert's suggestion.

It is in the problem solving stage that the path differed from the evidence-based wisdom. I told her the old saying, "sticks and stones may break my bones but names would never hurt me." As I said it that just didn't seem to cut it in the comforting/solution stakes as the names were clearly hurting her -- at least right then.

But they I thought about it. Hey "names don't hurt children." Isn't that interesting?

OK, so I am not really proud of the next part of the story. No crap. I am just a bit proud of it. Sue me.

Here is what I did. We went through every person in her class -- whether they were a name-caller or not -- and I helped her invent rhyming names for each of them to use should she be assaulted by a name-caller. Basically, I armed my daughter. The point being that that was OK as the names would hurt them, right?

Suffice it to say, that was a fun activity and to the best of my knowledge she never used any of them. But knowing that rhyming names -- some of them far more troubling than her own one -- existed was a comfort. I never heard of it again although I do know she remembers those names to this day.

No coordinated attack, no nothing. Another parenting problem solved.