Thursday, March 11, 2010

Is your child a bully?

I recently discovered that my child had been on the receiving end of behaviour that could definitely be described as bullying. My response to this was threefold.

1. Has it happened more than once?

An isolated incident is so prone to misunderstanding, mis-reporting and mis-remembering as to be unworthy of action*,

2. Have you told your teacher?

Since the answer to 1. was "yes". Since this answer was "no" I told him to tell his teacher immediately if it happens again.

3. Did you do anything to provoke this? (ie excluding or ridiculing the kid in question)

I don't know the answer to this question, and it isn't important that I do. It's only important that my kid considers whether he conrtibuted to bullying that may now be bouncing back on him. Bullying is never justified, but it might be explicable. Lots of bullies felt bullied themselves. As young kids, there isn't even necessarily a separation in time.

I've been really surprised at the number of people who have been uncomfortable that I asked the third question. There seems to be a strange assumption that if I see wrong in my child's behaviour, that it somehow absolves the behaviour of the other child. There is no logical imperative there. A situation can have essentially an infinite number of wrongs. None of them excuses another.

The other weird aspect of this that I can't get my head around, is that it feels like people divide kids into "good kids that might get bullied" and "bad kids that might bully others". Of course, I don't think anyone thinks their kid falls into the latter category. But just because my kid was being bullied, doesn't mean he wasn't doing his own bullying. I don't believe my kid meant to hurt anyone (wow, you'll be stunned by that) but then, I suspect the other kid involved in this situation just thought his behaviour was hilarious. I very much doubt he meant to hurt anyone either. But if we draw the battle lines now, at age 7, between those who we deem as "bad" and those deemed as "good" instead of recognising that bad behaviour begets bad behaviour, irrespective of motives, we create the environment that fosters a "hurt them before they hurt you" bullying mentality.

Later on, there is definitely a disconnect - those bullied rarely "provoked" the attack. But everyone, always, stands accountable for their actions. Two wrongs certainly don't make a right, but one wrong is even less likely to define a right on the other side. When A and B disagree, if I conclude that A is wrong, there is no logic that implies that I think B is right. This is possibly one of the most dangerous, and divisive failures in logic, and it invades our lives daily. I mean, I couldn't possibly fall foul of it, I am way too smart. (Yeah, right)

Most importantly, if we don't recognise the fuck ups of the past, on all sides, we can't move on and stop repeating them.

*Clearly, this is exempting extreme actions, I am discussing playground nastiness, not criminal behaviour


  1. "I've been really surprised at the number of people who have been uncomfortable that I asked the third question."

    For us: I definitely try to avoid the wording you've used. I ask for the full story including either side of the incident, and I ask what he thinks the other kid was thinking and feeling before it happened, and I also try to weasel out a narrative of what my kid was thinking, feeling, and doing before the incident. I feel like asking "Did you do anything to provoke it" is likely to just trigger defensiveness, instead of throwing light on things.

    Your kid may, as always, vary.

  2. Yeah, it clearly does depend on the kid, and that question doesn't need to be worded that way. I ask it that way because I'm not particularly interested in the answer. I only want him to consider that he may have also behaved badly.

    There is also a long history in our family of any child who reports that a sibling has done something nasty being asked what they did to precipitate it, because pretty much, there always was something. They are all fairly used to the question, and giving at least a plausible response, if not the objective truth. They often don't even know the objective truth. :)

    The point of the exercise is to get the kid to examine their own behaviour as well as that of the bully, so it makes sense to use whatever technique is going to work for any given kid. But the objection I usually get is that I shouldn't be considering my child's behaviour at all.

  3. I have a friend whose daughter was engaging in fairly nasty behaviour last year. She had fallen in with another girl in her class, and although both of them are nice enough kids (actually, I really like my friend's daughter - she's a feisty, determined child with plenty of get-up-and-go) , for some reason the combination was an unhappy one. My friend was distressed that her daughter was bullying, so she made an appointment with the principal to talk about what was happening, and to come with with a strategy for dealing with it. The principal was astonished. It was the first time a parent had ever contacted her, not because as child was being bullied, but because the child was bullying. As you say, Ariane, most people are deeply reluctant to admit that their own child could be at fault.

    My friend got the solution she wanted; the two girls are in different classes this year. She also worked hard with her own daughter to get her to realise how her behaviour was making other children unhappy, and to change the behaviour.

    We tend to follow Lauredhel's strategy i.e. ask about what happened, and get the girls to describe it from each person's point of view. It helps them to detach a little, and think about what might have caused it, and what they could do differently next time.

  4. My avoidance of the particular framing of "What did you do to provoke it?" isn't purely pragmatic; it's also based in a wish to avoiding instilling and reinforcing the dominant cultural narrative that when a weaker person is systematically and repeatedly abused and/or beaten by a stronger person or group of people, the weaker must have done something to cause it, and must therefore be ultimately to blame.

    Expanding on the pragmatic side for a moment: I'm pretty sure that with my kid, if I consistently responded to reports of unpleasant incidents with a response that assumed (explicitly or implicitly) that he must have started it, this would be the fast road to him clamming up completely. A key part of our protective behaviours work together is that he can always tell me anything bad that has happened him, and that I will believe him. (And that it's never ok to touch someone sexually without their consent, never justified to hit someone unless you are in immediate physical danger, and never, EVER ok for an adult to hit a child). I feel like using a "But how did you provoke it?"-implication when he discloses what he feels as a boundaries breach would be hypocritical of me, and would undermine that work. There's a much wider issue here for me, and one that I feel is deeply connected with my feminism. This is... let's just say that there are damn good reasons that this is a particularly raw issue right now.

    I don't automatically reject that idea that he may have been involved in escalation, or even may have started something at some point, but I don't reach for that assumption without substantial non-judgemental exploration first. My "I will believe you" doesn't mean "I won't ever ask for any more expansion"; it means "I will believe your initial report about the individual action and not reject it out of hand". I feel I can faithfully say that with this particular kid, who is as truthful as the day is long. YMMV.

    Ariane: I wonder if we're working with different definitions of "bullying", or something? I'm trying to figure out where the disconnect is here. I don't call every playground incidence of teasing or even fisticuffs "bullying".

  5. @Deborah: He's not quite ready to be trying to determine other people's contributory roles other than his own, but that is definitely soon to be added to the analysis. Right now he's really only up to considering his own behaviour.

    @Lauredhel: I thought for a long time about this, and I think there are two disconnects. The first is that the examples you give (in which I agree with you) all involve clear power imbalances. There is no power imbalance in this situation, or any that my kids have experienced so far. I don't doubt that some aspects of my approach will change depending on specific aspects of the incidents. The other is that my asking about his behaviour is not an exercise in judgement, it's an exercise in understanding how to stop the problematic behaviour, and it's the second part - after the more significant part of addressing how to stop the immediate behaviour. (In this instance, he did tell a teacher at my urging, and the behaviour has stopped.) Just tonight we had a long conversation about unintended consequences and how very often the thing that irritates someone else the most is something you have no idea is causing a problem. Examining your own behaviour is not about laying blame, but about understanding. The fact that my kids keep telling me what's going on suggests that they understand that at some level.

    These kids are little - they aren't bullies yet, they are just starting to engage in bullying behaviour. The bullies will be made by how they all handle the situations now. My primary objective as a member of the school community is to try to ensure that we don't make bullies - that we respond to this early bullying behaviour with a desire to understand what caused it, make it very clear that it's not acceptable, and then address the underlying causes for the behaviour. My children need to participate in that process or it can't work.

    For the record, I think this incident was bullying because it was repeated, targeted and involved humiliation. It was certainly not physically endangering. There may have been a power imbalance between the two kids at the moments of these incidents, but there have been other times when Ben has had the upper social hand, and has been responsible for some pretty bad exclusionary behaviour. I doubt these things are disconnected.

    Also, my kids don't always tell the truth, they often have no idea what the truth is. I don't think they lie to me too often in a deliberate and thought out way, but I know that the story they tell me rarely looks much like the objective truth, because they can't see the objective truth. As a result, I don't put much stock in finding out what happened and focus more on how to improve the situation, regardless of what went before. Kids all reach that stage of seeing greater perspectives at different times, so I know our family is hardly definitive.

    Having said all that (and it was a lot! sorry) - I don't disagree that once you get to serious offences there is nothing to be gained by asking how the victim contributed - nor is there anything to be gained where there are clear, inherent power imbalances. In fact, obviously, it is damaging and offensive.

  6. I have to admit... in my particular life... more often than not... when in elementary school or below... there is an "instigator" to start the bullying. However, this ALL changes when you get to middle school... as we are unfortunately learning the hard way. :-(

  7. Yeah, Nap Mom, once bullies have been allowed to be "made", the situation shifts. Definitely once they are bigger, there are established power structures and those cast in the "weaker" roles need not do anything to find themselves the target of bullies.

    Also, I'm not sure that we always see an "instigator" - more that bad behaviour is rarely limited to the kid whose behaviour was bad enough to attract the attention of adults.

  8. I've come to this late, Ariane, but I have to say I agree with you.

    Whilst it's really important not to blame a "victim" for a bully's behaviour (and I know you get that!) it's equally important that all parties in an incident take responsibility for their own behaviour.

    My concern with children, especially young children, is that we (parents/teachers/adults in general) tend to disempower them when incidents like this occur. By taking over and rushing in to "help" a "victim" we teach kids to rely on others to help them out of sticky situations. Of course there are times when intervention is needed, but I think getting kids to reflect on the incident, including their own behaviour is a good start to helping kids realise that they are not powerless to deal with all situations.

  9. The problem I have with bullying is that what is often seen as bullying is just petty playground behaviour.
    I was bullied at school and I'm ashamed to say it but I sometimes bullied others-mainly because I was frustrated.
    Back then, (the 80s and 90s) there were no anti bullying programs like there are today, yet bulling seems to be more prevalent now. I think kids should be taught the difference between bullying and playground behaviour that can sometimes get out of hand.

    It doesn't surprise me that bullying happens in schools. I guess that's what happens when you are in a situation where forced socialisation is occurring.

  10. @Lisa66 - That's a good point. I think it also helps the kid doing the bullying to see that their "side" has been heard. There is a big difference between "Your behaviour is completely unacceptable" and "You may have a legitimate complaint, but that is a completely unacceptable way to deal with it". That approach manages not disempower either side, which might help reduce those who go on to bully in an unprovoked, and more damaging way.

    @Flissy - I don't think bullying is any more prevalent now, I think we are much more aware of it. There is definitely a sliding scale from playground nastiness to systematically beating the crap out of people, but as soon as it becomes systematic and targeted, it looks like bullying to me. Also, kids can start to learn the bully basics before what they are doing is really bullying, but that's the best time to intervene.