Practical Dad

A Father’s Thoughts on Bullies

As a father, I've been concerned with how schools manage the issue of bullying.  The school system and I agree that bullying is wrong and we likewise agree that it shouldn't be tolerated.  We even agree that the first response of a child being bullied shouldn't just be to haul off and smack the problem child.  But where we disagree iswhether a child has any right to self-defense.  Is there a point at which achild can actually stand up for himself when the other avenues have failed?

We've taught our three children that they're to do three things if they feel they're being bullied.  First, tell the kid to stop doing whatever's creating the problem.  Second, simply walk away.  If the first two steps fail, then find and tell someone in authority.  Many of these instances occur in places where there is adult control and it's the adults' responsibility to prevent these problems.  Schools are particularly sensitive to the issue and will actively take measures to monitor, control and discipline kids who bully.

Unfortunately, adults aren't always around.

I was raised with the understanding that you might have to fight back.  We've taught our kids that if the three avoidance steps fail, they should defend themselves.  So I was surprised some years ago to hear that the elementary school guidance counselor had asked my son's class this question:  How many of your parents have said that it's okay to fight back if you're being bullied?  My son and several classmates raised their hands.  Your parents are wrong.  If anybody is caught throwing punches or kicking somebody, even a bully, they'll be punished the same as the person they say is bullying them.  One of the kids asked what would happen if they were outnumbered with their backs to the wall and had no choice?  The response was the same.  The counselor did provide the class with strategies that could be used if they were being bullied but the kids were left scratching their heads.  This, along with a comment that was wildly misconstrued by my son, led to a phone call to determine what was said and in this instance, the counselor's original question was indeed correct.

I understand the situation in which schools find themselves.  Society's violence level has spilled into schools and what we settled with fists is now handled with weapons.  If a child denies being a bully to the parents, today's parents are more likely to support them even at the threat of litigation.  Combine these factors and school systems simply find it easier to adopt a zero-tolerance policy that punishes all equally, regardless of guilt or circumstances.  It's the juvenile equivalent of the Second Amendment argument that when all guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

So what can you do?  A bully will take over a child's life and the bully must be handled one way or another.  Our kids have had to contend with multiple bullies, including a troubled first-grader who actually contracted with a fourth-grader to attack and beat up my first grade son.  In that instance, our son immediately went to the playground aide and all three wound up in the principal's office to settle the matter.

  • First, pay attention and decide whether or not there is a bullying problem.  Some kids will share it but others will hide the situation. Learn the signs of bullying.  Likewise, listen to the names that get thrown around by the kids and the context in which you're hearing them and then take an opportunity to visit the school, even if it means taking time out of work.
  • Second, find out your school system's policy on bullying.  How do they address cases of bullying?
  • Third, if you think that your child has a problem, contact the school and speak with the teacher and principal.  To their credit, they will take it seriously and listen.  Tell them what you're hearing and ask what they know.  What about the suspected child or children?  Any other issues?  Ask them to investigate and give them an opportunity to respond.  When the teacher knows that there's a problem, you'll generally have a respite window as greater attention is paid. 
  • Fourth, follow up quickly and work out an action plan.  Then share it with your child and pay attention.  If the bullying continues, follow up with the school again.  Delegate upwards if the problem persists.
  • If the situation does continue, decide what your response is.  In our case, a bully took over our other son's second grade year and despite multiple conversations with the teacher and the bully's mother - Dad wasn't around - the problems continued.  After our son was bullied again, I simply told the principal that my son would defend himself accordingly.  The bullying did decrease afterwards and I then made it a point to share with other teachers and principals - when the need arose - that my kids had the option to defend themselves if the adults didn't resolve the problem.  My wife and I made a conscious decision - and shared it with the kids - that if all other approaches failed, we'd back them if they got in trouble for fighting.

There might be consequences at school, but we'd work with it and they'd have no consequences with us.  Because when the kids are adults,they will have to manage these issues themselves.

 

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