Dateline NBC hit some key points about bullies and bystanders while skimming along the surface in “My Kid Would Never Bully.” The show set up two pretty stereotypical scenarios (one involving boys in a gym and the other girls discussing fashion), hired two actors for each (one playing the bully and the other the victim), brought in 3-4 “real kids” who were the bystanders, and had parents and bullying experts watching these on-camera experiments from another room. The key points were how crucial bystanders are in disarming bullies; how it usually takes one brave person to change the dynamics, then others follow; and how nobody lets on there’s a problem when the supervising adult reenters the scene (one reason why we often hear “not my kid” or “not this school”). The show focused more on the girls than the boys, but one boy bystander did something very interesting when he’d had it with the bully’s cruelty toward the targeted boy. He just lay down – stretched out on the gym floor – which was very effective in interrupting the bully and refocusing everybody’s attention.
Author Rosalind Wiseman, the expert for the girls scenario (who also appeared at this week’s bully-prevention summit at the White House), made the important point that the most common reaction of witnesses or bystanders is to stay neutral and do nothing, but that “the neutral position that bystanders think they’re taking by not getting involved is actually not neutral; it’s siding with the bully,” Wiseman said, because it doesn’t change the power dynamic being acted out (the show was very good at showing us what that dynamic looks like).
A slightly more controversial point Wiseman makes is that “teaching about values and being nice and kind is not enough, because what you’ll see is that mean girls view being nice as being weak.” They have no intention to concede the upper hand, she says. Instead, focus on the victim and “their right to dignity” (this is so important – see this). The target, Wiseman tells Dateline, needs to be able to own the situation, to say “I don’t like this and I actually have the right to say it.” Which sounds fantastic, but targets don’t always feel up to claiming their right, other experts argue.
Ways to support, not blame
Joan Tabachnick, a nationally known child abuse prevention expert, writes in her blog, “I get what they were trying to say, but I believe that we do need to be able to be both confrontative and kind. The bully may back off when he or she is confronted. But if we want the bully to change, we need to be sure to find ways to show the bully a better [path] through the difficulties of adolescence.” She seems to be suggesting there’s an alternative to public confrontation or punishment, and other experts agree. For example, I urge educators to check out the “No Blame Approach,” described in a New Zealand paper, “Responsive Schools”). It’s based on the premises that “bullying is a behavior not a personality” and “reparation and restoration of the relationships can occur only when there is no threat of punishment or sanction. The desire to exact revenge is usually the product of being named and shamed, especially where school authorities are informed and they adopt a punitive approach (see p. 55 of the paper).
A creative strategy that builds on the No Blame Approach is the “Undercover Safety Team” of students known only to the target, the school counselor, and a classroom teacher or two. It’s mentioned in “Responsive Schools” (p. 59), but Auckland high school counselor Michael Williams describes his own experience with this technique “popularized in a number of countries around the world.” He helps “Yvette,” a student newly immigrated from South Africa who’d been harassed for months, walking his readers through the team’s five phases: “valuing the victim,” “recruiting the Team,” “creating the plan,” “monitoring progress,” and “celebrating success” with his account of what happened. Writes the author of “Responsive Schools, “The irony of this approach is that these undercover agents facilitate turning bullies into protectors of their victims. Bullies are provided with an opportunity to ‘try out’ positive behaviours without being blamed and have their power shifted so that they are given responsibility for a peer’s wellbeing.”
- “Responsive Schools” also cites the influence of Canada’s Roots of Empathy program, founded by Mary Gorden (mentioned in this post).
- New research out of North Carolina (linked to here) found that “most teenage aggression is directed at social rivals,” indicating the fluidity of bullying conditions and bearing out the point in “Responsive Schools” that bullying “is a behavior not a personality.”
- YouthFacts.org was much tougher on the Dateline show that I was, and their commentary‘s worth reading.
- “New Tactics to Tackle Bystander’s Role in Bullying” in ScienceDaily.com
- Speaking of bystanders, if we and our children could just live out this song, “I’ll Stand By You,” so beautifully sung by P.S. 22’s 5th Grade Chorus, we’d be making serious progress on this journey.