My bullying prevention program

The first week of October featured a flurry of discussion about bullying in the US – Newsweek , People Magazine, CNN (a week of coverage on bullying).  I was saddened and shocked by the children who committed suicide after bullying. 

Boys playing

Bullying happens.  It has happened since the dawn of time. Animals do it in the wild – they fight for social status and breeding rights. And so do people – we jockey for social position and that jockeying is hurtful to the person who doesn’t win. I know, as a kid, I was pretty low on the social status meter as a child.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s NurtureShock aggregated research showing that “Zero Tolerance” is a 100% failure (chapter 9, Plays Well with Others - synopsis here).  It often penalizes play or simple bad judgement. With the severity of the penalties for any form of bullying (“tag” is considered bullying by some definitions), the children drive this behavior underground where the bullying includes threats if the subject asks for help.  Zero tolerance is catchy and as a parent, sounds reassuring, but it doesn’t work. And it’s not realistic training for life.

How do you stop bullying? Or help your child avoid the temptation of being a bully online or in person?  How should you help your child deal with being bullied? Is there any way to enable your child to share with you if they feel bullied (and verify the story if needed)?

From all the writing of the week of Oct. 4 plus NurtureShock and my own experience, I think parents have all the tools we need to conduct a 16 year bullying prevention program.

  1. Start when they are toddlers.  Kindness must be taught to toddlers and reinforced for the rest of childhood. If you explain, model and reward kindness with social status, children learn that there is a healthy path to social acceptance. If you missed this window, start now.
  2. Parents, teachers and people in the community have to make an effort to recognize and applaud kindness. And be absolute in reaction if your child is a bully – it’s unacceptable and they should be ashamed and embarrassed.
  3. Listen to our children without taking action. They need to decide what they want us to do – to just listen, to brainstorm, to act. They have to know it’s safe to tell us what’s happening.
  4. Help our children develop a thick skin. Not everyone is nice or polite. Not everyone is going to like you. Sometimes you have to let it roll off you.
  5. Teach our children when and how to fight back.  Whether through words or acts, in person or digitally, they have to know how to stand up for themselves.

True zero tolerance comes from their peers. Kids, especially teenagers, care more about what their friends think than what their parents or teachers think. Zero tolerance comes from peer pressure. When, among your peers, it’s just not okay to be a bully – when it lowers your social status – there’s no benefit to doing it. And it stops.

What do you do about preventing and dealing with bullying?