How to teach children not to bully others

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Question: I recently saw the story of the bullied school bus monitor on the news. Some middle school boys said hateful things to a 68-year-old widow and reduced her to tears, while a student recorded it on his cellphone. Why would anyone feel free to be that obnoxious and disrespectful? How can parents and school personnel prevent this kind of behaviour from happening on school buses?

Answer: A video viewed by millions of people brought sympathy and more than $600,000 to a bullied grandmother. Viewers were stunned at the meanness unveiled, and you are not alone in thinking the behaviour of the bullies was unacceptable. The media broadcasts will no doubt encourage awareness and protect many helpless victims both children and seniors, who often suffer bullying in silence.

In my research about middle grade students for my book, “Growing Up Too Fast”, I blamed technology for dramatically increasing bullying and aggressive behavior. Viewing more violence on TV screens and video games definitely increases the likelihood of aggressive behaviour. Research shows the association of aggression and violent behaviour to be as great as cigarette smoking and lung cancer. In the case of the bullied school bus monitor, however, the media has been a hero, bringing this disgusting behaviour to world attention.

Bullying isn’t a new phenomenon, but there’s no question that there’s more of it. Some bullying takes place because those who have been victims feel angry enough to become perpetrators. Much of bullying stems from the middle grade years when there are developmental changes in kids that they don't quite understand. Their earlier natural wishes to please adults shift to seeking peer approval and searching for paths to becoming acceptable to others their age.

Two psychological features seem to predominate during that period. The first is humour. A clever sense of humour is clearly accepted as one path to popularity. Listen to any group of middle schoolers making jokes. Sometimes they “get it”, and sometimes their humour falls flat. A large part of humor in general is, unfortunately, at the expense of others. When it’s extremely mean, it becomes bullying. Recall the laughter of all the boys involved as the poor woman cried and as each new insult was added to her hurt feelings. The boys were too busy laughing to think about or even try to understand that they were hurting this woman’s feelings.

The second social psychological feature is that groups of people feel closer to each other when they are attacking an enemy. In bullying, children group together to make the victim into an enemy. As they band together to identify who they are not, they feel anger at the person they’re bullying. If you’re young, you don’t want to be old. If you want to feel strong, you make others seem weak. If you want to be beautiful or handsome, you claim others are ugly. The bullying serves to temporarily make the bullies feel in control and powerful.

While no child would have been likely to bully this woman alone, none had sufficient confidence to stand up against the others. It’s likely it never even occurred to them to disengage or defend the bus monitor as they bonded in what felt like fun and closeness, instead of the meanness it actually was.

The media, from the first footage, to all the news shows that have commented on TV are bringing important conversations to tables in every household. I’m joining in and asking parents and teachers to talk to their children about kindness and consideration and remind them not to accept bullying, even as they struggle to find their adolescent identities.

Here are a few tips for parents and teachers to use to prevent and discourage bullying:

1. Praise kindness casually, not extremely, to notice children who are caring and considerate toward others.

2. Remind children to stop and think before going along with their peers. Explain that sometimes it's fine to do what the rest do, but at other times, they have to have the courage to standalone.

3. Encourage children to plan positive activities together secret surprises for parents and grandparents, creative crafts, and environmental, charitable and sports activities.

4. Involve children in volunteer activities that help those who are in need. Include senior citizens in their volunteer activities by visiting assisted living homes. Seniors enjoy the visits and musical or dance performances of young people. Kids may not understand the elderly unless they are close to seniors they love and respect.

5. Be role models for respecting others with individual differences.

For a free newsletter about bullying and/or my book "Growing Up Too Fast" (Rodale, 2005) send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for each newsletter to address below. Dr Sylvia B. Rimm is the director of the Family Achievement Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and the author of many books on parenting. More information on raising kids is available at www.sylviarimm.com. Please send questions to: Sylvia B Rimm on Raising Kids, PO Box 32, Watertown, Wisconsin 53094 or srimm@sylviarimm.com

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Published Jul 7, 2012 at 7:00 am (Updated Jul 6, 2012 at 11:34 am)

How to teach children not to bully others

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