I was outraged when I saw the latest YouTube account of bullying. The extent of the incident and cruelness of some children is beyond comprehension.
Karen, the gentle, matronly grandmother from a small town in New York, just wanted her tormentors to go away. These tormentors did not invade her home, nor were they holding a gun against her head — although they might as well have been. These were seventh graders on a school bus.
Karen, an aide on the bus, tried to ignore what was happening as four seventh grade boys in the back of the bus verbally and physically abused her. Ultimately, she was driven to tears. “They were trying to impress each other by acting this way, and I was the likely victim,” she said later. Graciously, she added, “They’re not bad kids, but when they get together (bad) things happen.”
This reminds me of the kids in Lord of the Flies, a novel often assigned in honors English classes. In this story, a group of children stranded on a tropical island develop their own culture in which the most ruthless kids dominate. With no adult moral compass, animal instincts rule until the group commits the ultimate act of bullying — killing the child whom they identify as the “pig.” As an educator, I quickly learned the importance of prompt, firm adult intervention when kids treat others badly. As Karen suggested, not every kid that abused her was mean. But one in particular had an attitude of arrogance and smirked when he acted horrifically. The others simply joined in and followed, probably trying to impress the leader but adding to Karen’s hurt.
Sadly, Karen’s case isn’t isolated. Just two days later, a shocking 10-minute video of children verbally and physically harassing an elderly school bus driver surfaced on YouTube. These children — who appear to be even younger than Karen’s tormenters — giggled as they encouraged a boy’s profanity-laced tirade against a bus driver named Bill. The driver did his best to ignore the boy, even as the child slapped the back of Bill’s head and kicked the back of his seat while Bill drove on.
As a parent, what would you do if your child was one of those who followed the leaders and became caught up in the herd dynamic? You might agree with Karen that “My child isn’t bad,” but would it end there?
Poor parenting is ignoring opportunities to take an uncomfortable situation and turn it into a teachable moment.
Not every kid that participated in this bullying was raised poorly. But those who joined in demonstrated that they lacked self-confidence and the moral compass to be an “upstander” instead of a participant. There is something that parents can teach their children — empathy. Empathy is learned through example and using negative encounters as teachable moments.
Every parent should show their child the YouTube video of the Karen being abused and then ask:
- How does that make you feel?
- What would you saw that happening on your bus?
- What would make you take part in this kind of behavior?
- Do kids bully and pick on other kids on your bus? What can you do to stop it?
Parents can encourage their kids to be individuals and not to be part of the herd.
- Encourage individuality and provide opportunities for self-expression.
- Take every opportunity possible to discuss negative and positive interactions between people when you see them — between kids and kids, adults and adults, and kids and adults. Simply ask: How would you feel if you were treated that way? What can you do to make the hurt person feel better? What would you do if you saw a friend of yours treating someone like that?
- Praise your child when he or she expresses empathy, steps in to help another, or expresses concern that someone is being hurt physically or emotionally.
- Teach your children well. Give them the tools — words and actions — they need to intervene when someone is being hurt, and teach them never to do this to anyone.
Another great source for parents is the film Bully, which follows five families through their ordeal of bullying. Parents and teachers are taking their kids to this movie and creating opportunities afterward to discuss their feelings. In the movie, students gang up on others, much like in Karen and Bill’s situations. Audiences react with empathy and compassion for the bullied — but kids sometimes need to be engaged in discussion to bring out their feelings in a way that helps them to develop empathy.
Even with anti-bullying laws in 49 states and provinces in Canada, bullying hasn’t stopped. In fact, kids are still taking their own lives because someone didn’t show empathy — someone didn’t step in and perhaps instead joined the herd, pushing the victim over the edge. When I see accounts like the one of the four seventh-grade boys torturing an innocent lady who is there to help them, I become even more disheartened. How can this be overcome?