As a new school year begins, anti-bullying campaigns have become more formidable than ever before. This is obviously a good thing since the world would be a much, much better place for kids if there weren't so many little turd belligerents around. Anti-bullying champions are a noble bunch, and they present an articulate plan of action that rests on two principles: building kids' self-esteem and sense of self-worth so that they will instinctually deflect the abuse of bullies, and encouraging them to open up to parents and school administrators when bullies get to them.
Again, a noble effort, but not without some glaring holes. For starters, there's a reason kids tend to not speak up about bullying, which is that doing so will most likely result in further bullying. Children a) relish the opportunity to punish one another for the grievous crime of "telling" and b) abhor being told what to do, much less being threatened, by adults. Speaking up will more than likely result in a reputation as a brownnose, not a hero's welcome at lunchtime, which in kid land is justification for bullying.
It's a fine strategy in the adult world -- a workplace environment, for example, where an HR person can basically hold the continuance of a paycheque over a bully's head -- but it's completely useless when dealing with children, who are smart enough to know tattle-taling -- even on some puke jerk-off -- is one of the worst social crimes they can commit.
As for the strengthening kids' self-esteem part, this is an important exercise but very difficult to maintain outside the home, because, once a child is on his or her own it doesn't matter how much a parent builds them up if it isn't reinforced by their peers -- and you can bet it's not being reinforced by their peers because kids aren't in the habit of doing that kind of thing (friendship at a young age is based on mutual interests -- sports or video games or music -- not admirable personality qualities).
The sad reality is this: You can't stop bullying and you certainly can't protect your kids from it. There are, however, two ways to combat it.
The more mature method is to offer your child a reality check: There are a lot of losers out there and one must learn to live with the losers because they are for some unexplainable reason a part of life. This approach offers the added bonus of serving your child well as he or she eventually grows to become a working stiff and undoubtedly encounters adult jerks.
Explain to your children that not everyone is as smart and/or talented as they are and therefore must resort to hurting others because it's the only way they can get attention. Use examples from your own life, like that useless lump of a coworker who resorts to insults to overcompensate for his lack of intellect and ability. This is a lesson your child is going to have to learn eventually, so why not get started early?
The other, potentially more satisfying, plan of action is to teach your kids how to fight back. This may seem hypocritical -- fighting bullying by, essentially, bullying back -- but in my view is completely acceptable when used in moderation. As I said before, your average tough guy is overcompensating for something, typically stupidness or ugliness though, there are other possibilities: Teach your child to hit back -- we're talking about kids here, so even the most basic insult about looks, or weight or bad grades will likely do the trick. Generally speaking, bullies prey on the weak; if your child proves his or her strength, the onslaught should stop.
(You might even want to encourage your child to involve his peer group -- the more the merrier.) Of course, you must set very clear boundaries: bullying as a means to end bullying must only continue until the bully gets the message. Otherwise you risk creating your own monster, thus defeating the purpose of the exercise and proving how terrible you are at parenting.
I won't advocate fighting back with fists, even in scenarios where the bullying is physical. Still, it's never a bad idea to teach your tykes a bit of self-defence. Because a bloody nose is also something that bullies respond well to.
Bullydom is but another of God's cruel jokes, a state of being that serves no discernible purpose to mankind. And yet there it is anyways, so the best we can do is limit bullies' ability to negatively affect us. Each child that learns how to successfully counteract bullying means one less opportunity for the bully to wreak havoc. Eventually, one envisions the bullies only have each other to torture, which would actually be really entertaining for the rest of us, come to think of it. And at that point perhaps the benign message of anti-bullying crusaders won't be so glaringly lacking.