With the beginning of the school year, once again articles are appearing about bullying, as well as advice and programs for schools designed to help schools handle bullying and make a difference with kids (or, as my more cynical side thinks, designed to make money for the consultants offering the advice/program). However, as I've said many times, bullying is not a school problem -- that is, it is not caused by the school and is very difficult to deal with in schools in the absence of a wraparound, whole society effort to stop it.
Where do kids learn to bully? I believe that they learn it from many different sources, including family, media, and other kids. Television shows model put-downs as humor, a form of bullying, all the time. Take some time to watch programs, and also commercials, through this lens, and you'll quickly see how much attention is given to put-downs, and that they are presented as humorous. I remember one ad, for some kind of take-home chicken, I think, that showed a father coming home with the meal for his family. The kids ran out, grabbed the food, ran back into the house with it, and ignored the father, who appeared to be sad and left out. The whole thing was supposed to be funny, and what message does it give about how to treat others when it shows someone being sad and excluded as humorous? I also remember hearing a student telling another about asking a girl out and then saying "NOT!" when she responded positively. The student telling the story thought it was funny, and I think we can remember where that model came from. AND -- this might be the most difficult to say, but it's also clear that kids learn from observing their parents. The parents who come into the school to demand that their child be placed in a particular classroom, or who confront a teacher about a child's grade, or who demand that a coach give their child more playing time, or who cut off other drivers on the road, or demand concessions from a clerk in a store -- all are clearly modeling for their kids that it's OK to bully others to get what you want.
So one reason that schools have such a difficult time dealing with bullying is that kids are having it modeled for them, and shown as appropriate, in so many different arenas. Some kids are actually puzzled by the messages given to them by the school, because the messages are so different from what they are hearing elsewhere. Also -- and very important from a school point of view -- is that kids also learn, and learn very early and very well, that "tattling" is worse than bullying. All too frequently, a parent will call the school to let them know that his/her child is being bullied, but will ask that the school not take any action for fear of repercussions. This scenario always frustrated me tremendously, because obviously this code of silence makes the environment safe for the bullies, while if the code were the reverse, and telling was the default, the environment would be safe for everyone else and not for the bullies. Many people whom I have talked to about this feel that if kids didn't learn not to tattle parents and teachers would be driven crazy by all the "telling on" that would happen, but I feel strongly that by teaching kids not to "tell," we are sending messages that rules and expected behavior don't really count and that what's important is to protect those who hurt others.
So what would I suggest to end bullying? I would suggest a two-fold approach, but not just in schools -- if we could all join in two efforts, I think it would make a big difference, not just for kids but for everyone. First, of course, adults need to stop bullying and treat each other respectfully, in driving, to store clerks, to those we work with, to teachers and administrators, to everyone, and model this for their kids. Second, we need to stop teaching kids not to "tattle." I would suggest that when a child comes to complain -- e.g., "She's throwing sand at us" -- instead of telling the child not to tattle, we confirm the child's feeling about the event -- "You're right -- she should not be doing that" -- and then say, "Can you handle it yourself or do you need my help?" After that, there are three possibilities: (1) the child says he can handle it; (2) the parent can coach the child on how to handle it ("What if you tell her you don't like it and ask her to stop? And if she doesn't, let me know and I'll help"); or (3) if the child really needs help, the parent can intervene in the situation. That way, the child is learning appropriate assertiveness skills, as well as having it confirmed that another person should not be doing something hurtful and that it's appropriate to get help if the person ignores requests to stop. Imagine for a minute that we all took this approach -- I think it would, over time, change our world to one in which people were more likely to treat each other with respect, and thus would be a better environment for all of us.