Saturday, November 21, 2009

Relationships don't matter for boys

The ABC website ran a story last night about the life-long effects of bullying. It talks positively about the need to creating cultural change - to make it acceptable for kids to tell people about it in a more realistic way. I was a bit disappointed to see that they still weren't calling for much more encouragement for bystanders to report bullying, but then it was a pretty superficial article.

It was all a little dull really, until this bit:

"Our research has shown that in fact there are probably more females bullied then males, probably because males ride it out and they handle things in their particular way.

"The importance of having relationships with others is very, very important to a girl, and we're saying it's those things that are impacted the most, when bullying goes on."

Where to start? While I accept this might well be empirically correct, it's about as informative as reporting the most prevalent colour of T shirt worn by people who have been bullied. Do boys "handle things in their particular way" or are they just socialised to hide their reactions? Why are relationships more important for girls? Surely relationships should be just as important for boys.

Further on, the article describes the socially isolating effect of bullying on Chrstine O'Leary, a Wesley Mission employee. If girls suffer from this more than boys, does that tell us more about how socially isolated boys are to start with? Does this tell us something about why men score lower on measures of empathy than women?

The report claims that 70% of Australian adults have been bullied as kids, which resonates pretty well with my experience, so I've no reason to question it. Apart from the real need to stop bullying, there is also a need to understand how we are socialising our kids to deal with it here and now - after all it's affecting most of us. Boys are taught to be tough and ignore it, girls are taught to - I don't know, what are girls taught to do? The messages I keep seeing are just that if affects them badly. So I guess they are taught to fall apart. So we raise boys who distance themselves from everyone so that the bullying doesn't hurt so much, and girls who are taught that they are nothing without other people.

This becomes part of who we are and colours our view of personal responsibility. This is where the time honoured tradition of men spouting off about how they handled bullies by fighting back/stoically ignoring/being untouchable or whatever and therefore dismissing those who report bullying as weak, starts. No-one asks what those strategies cost those men. What are the real consequences of "handling things in their particular way"? Is it so universal that we see it as the "normal" traits of men - distant, angry, independent?

This is all mere speculation, but while people like Keith Garner report bullying in such a superficial way, we'll never know. In the meantime, I'll do my best to teach my kids to look out for bullying - I'll try to remember to ask explicitly, occasionally, if there is anyone at school who is being picked on, rather than just thinking about my kids' well-being. And I'll try to work out what the hell is the best way to negotiate being the target without being ripped apart or setting yourself apart.


  1. This is just me thinking out loud here, but I wonder why the teenage suicide rate for young males has traditionally been higher than for females. Is this how boys "handle things in their own way" ?

    When I ask my sons about bullying at school, it's usually other boys they name as being "picked on". This may be because they are missing some of the more subtle bullying that goes on amongst girls, because more of their friends are boys, or because they are focussing more on physical acts, rather than verbal taunts or exclusion. Still, it's usually other boys that they identify as having no friends, or being the target of bullies.

    I have no doubt that bullying affects individuals in different ways and that gender may play a part in this, as boys and girls play out the roles they have been socialised into. But I think it is dangerous to assume that one gender is affected MORE than the other or that relationships are not important to boys. On a personal level I can tell you that my own sons value their relationships with their friends very highly and that any friendships "issues" cause them angst.

    I find this type of media coverage disturbing. I wonder if I can find the story online to have a look?

  2. It could well be a contributing factor to young male suicide rates, but I start a whole new post on the range of things I think contribute to that!

    I completely agree, the atrocious sweeping gender statements stunned me. My husband also tends to think of bullying in physical terms, which is another interesting aspect of the different ways people think about it.

    The article I am referring to is linked at the top of the post. Is it working for you?

  3. Yes, got it now!somehow I missed the link before. Thanks.