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Let’s Abolish Bullying
What is creating the increasing incidence of bullying? Who is responsible? And what can we do about it?

Most of us remember the awful news when just eight days after the high school shooting at Columbine, Colorado, a 14-year-old boy entered a Taber, Alberta high school and opened fire with a .22 calibre shotgun killing one boy and injuring another. In the days and weeks that followed, what became clear was that the perpetrator was a young man who had dropped out of school after years of being ridiculed and taunted, something we now recognize as a form of bullying.

…bullying is an insidious evil that destroys the potential of victim and bully alike…

While this story shocked our nation, similar circumstances are occurring daily in homes and schoolyards across our land. In fact, bullying is linked to other serious ills within society including the rise of gang warfare in cities as young people ally themselves with “protectors” in an attempt to secure their own safety.

More than a hundred years after the abolition of slavery, it is time for our society to take a similar stand against bullies, although it is much more difficult to identify both the victims and perpetrators of this social issue.

One wonders what is creating the increasing incidence of bullying? Who is responsible? And what can we do about it? 

First, it must be noted that bullying is an insidious evil that destroys the potential of victim and bully alike, often for a lifetime. Just one step over the line in healthy interaction or competition, it is any action that seeks to gain an unfair advantage over another. Bullying may come from a wounded spirit fighting back, or a fear of insufficiency. Whatever the source, it manifests itself in a selfish preoccupation with gaining power over others.

As for what is causing bullying to increase, the breakdown of family as the foundation of our society is certainly one cause. With more than three decades of escalating divorce rates, stressed and overly-stretched single parents are less able to provide the leadership their families need. And with both parents working in two parent families today, the situation is pretty much the same.

God planned that children be raised in families with parents who would lead in giving provision, opportunity and protection that would allow them to develop in peace and security. When that fails to occur, children go into a self-protective mode, and fail to develop the inner qualities of trust and respect. This causes far-reaching long-term implications including a distrust of all authority, and a need to take matters into their own hands.

Certainly we know that when bullying in the home is tolerated, it visits the school. When it’s allowed at school, it enters society. When it’s unchecked in society, it visits nations.

Many times in history, including most wars, bullying among nations has threatened societies. Many lives have been lost purchasing freedom from the grasp of bullies on the world stage.

There have also been shining examples of those who have stood up to the matter in other ways. Consider people like Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Ghandi. Both of these men took a public stand against a system of oppression through peaceful confrontation. And both won public acclaim, while striking a blow to evil that rippled freedom to generations of people after them.

Before these men could do it however, they had to confront the bully within their own hearts. They had to win the inner war of good over evil. And certainly we know that such a battle is fought for the heart and mind of each child, for every child, while born with the potential for goodness relies on earliest life experiences to set the course upon which they will travel.

Consider this story

He was born into a family who loved him and desired to nurture him, but because of less than optimal nurturing in their own early lives, they were ill-equipped to give it. At a very early age, he felt the effects of bullying as his father beat him and his mother yelled at him for misbehaviour.

He had nowhere to turn. His life became desperately lonely…

He became a complacent child, entering school shy and unsure of himself. Other kids sensed his insecurities and undeveloped skills and took advantage of him, bullying him further. As his confidence dropped even lower, he began to believe the false evidence about himself that he observed, re-enforced with cutting sarcasm and taunting jeers. He had no defenders, because he had learned early in life that drawing attention to one’s self brought added abuse. If the teacher was aware, he felt she must not value him enough to protect him. Perhaps he wasn’t worth rescuing!

Over time his pain grew deeper, and his isolation increased as his reactionary behaviour distanced him from his classmates. Occasionally someone would sympathetically draw him into their circle, only to drop him when the load got heavy.

He had nowhere to turn. His life became desperately lonely, believing himself to be a blight on society. Nobody intervened to show him that what he believed about himself was untrue, and desperate for survival, he developed a strategy for using people for his own means. Preying on the weakness and insecurity of other victims, he rallied them to himself, building a force that would conquer any foe he would encounter. Intoxicated with power, his behaviour escalated to a point where hating what he had become, he ended his own life.

This is a fictitious account but could be the story of any of the bullies who make the news headlines we read all too often. In fact, these stories sometimes end with the perpetrator taking not only their own life but the lives of others as well.

Bullying is actually a part of a larger cycle of abuse. Acclaimed author and international speaker Beth Moore, recently recounted how when she saw her first child, she realized that if she didn’t win the war against evil raging in her heart because of the abuses in her life, she would pass down that legacy instead of good. Her prayer for God’s intervention in her life was answered and may have prevented a tragedy as in the story just told.

Children who are deprived of love, nurture and guidance are not only potential perpetrators of bullying, but the prime targets as well. Those who abuse others look for vulnerable individuals whose low self esteem makes them unlikely to either defend themselves or seek defense from others.

What role can we play then in stopping the cycle of bullying that creates such havoc? Parents and teachers are the primary leaders that set the stage for training and protection in children’s lives, but all adults who interact with children have an opportunity to observe and intervene. We should all seek to:

Model a life of goodness before children

Modelling goodness sets an example that children can follow. Children are the keenest observers of behaviour, and it has been said that children live what they learn. As adults, we must set the tone for the respect, kindness, and fairness that we wish children to exhibit.

Make your correction both instructive & empowering

Real nurturing requires both loving children and correcting them. Children need to understand the benefits resulting from wise choices, and consequences that accompany poor choices. And they need the respect to make choices, secure in the knowledge that the consequences will remain consistent.

Children thrive in an environment where there are rules they can count on.

Society today frowns upon parental (or other adult) correction in an attempt to eradicate abuses against children. Wise correction that includes instructive communication, encouragement, and love is a necessary part of childhood experience.

Part of that necessary correction is addressing the issues of bullying, laying down a set of “no tolerance” rules that you are prepared to stand behind. Children thrive in an environment where there are rules they can count on.

Protect children by listening to their tattling

Children are vulnerable and sometimes their very lives are in the hands of their parents and teachers. When we fail to listen to children who tell tales on one another, we add to that vulnerability as children feel disregarded and that it is unsafe to turn to authority when there is a problem.

Certainly there are cases when tattling is annoying, but we need to listen to their stories and help them sort out the truth. Sometimes untrue or exaggerated claims mask a deeper problem they are seeking attention to reconcile.

Often in the schoolyard teachers are tired, preoccupied, or genuinely busy with other things and fail to respond adequately when a child reports bullying. Even so, children need to be listened to with respect and have their complaint assessed for validity. Sometimes just talking about it will prevent a child from taking matters into their own hands, thereby escalating the situation.

Especially listen to children who are standing up for another child. Bullies intimidate and often punish those who seek to protect a victim, or ‘squeal” to authority, and children who report bullying need to know their courageous effort has been taken seriously and will be investigated.

Children need to know it is safe to tell what they believe to be true. Those who report bullying should be taken seriously, and not shamed, while examining the motives of the reporter. By asking a child, “Why are you telling me this?” both you and the child have the opportunity to explore the reason for the report, whether it be for personal protection, that they are concerned about a social injustice to someone else, or just an attempt to get another child into trouble. Even if children are wrong, they shouldn’t be shamed as it may prevent them from reporting a legitimate situation on the future.

Taking tattling seriously teaches children to recognize bullying and support one another against it. It gives the message that in every case, they are to say “NO!” to bullying, and that they will be backed by appropriate authority.

Teach children to use delegated power

When a child reports bullying they must be told they have done the right thing and that it will be dealt with. It is important that they understand they were right not to take matters into their own hands, and that if they are bothered again they should tell the bully that they will have to answer to whoever it was reported to.

Pay attention to rivalry

Undoubtedly, we all relate to sibling or classroom rivalry involving a combination of passive-aggressive and overt physical bullying. Perhaps the first child teases the second one, or pokes him, or does some other irritating thing, refusing to quit, but does it discreetly. Finally the second child hauls off and punches his tormentor. We’re all familiar with cases where with loud wails, the tormentor “tattles’ to the authority figure and the child who was actually protecting themselves is punished.

Many cases of bullying actually begin in this setting. In a recent Toronto, Ontario case of schoolyard violence, a nine-year-old child stabbed an 11-year-old in the back with a knife. Investigation uncovered that the 11-year-old had been bullying the younger child for a long period of time and it was actually an ill-chosen attempt to protect himself and stop the abuse.

Wise authority figures will conduct significant exploration before laying blame in any incident.

Teach children to respect individual differences

Applaud the strengths of each child, personally and before their peers. Teaching that each child has unique gifts helps develop their own self worth and fosters a sense of mutual respect among a group. Messages about the value of differences from personality type to culture and physical abilities strengthens cohesion in a group of children, increasing their awareness of each other as individuals yet part of a whole.

Encourage children to become champions in love and respect

Children are among the most idealistic human beings. It is relatively simple to inspire them to great passion in defending those who need their help. They can also inadvertently be the most cruel as they are still learning about the power of their words. As important as it is to correct interaction that is harmful, it is more powerful to promote interaction that is compassionate.

Strengthen a child’s spirit

Bullying is a spiritual issue. It is most often the attempt of a wounded heart in fighting back, often a heart depleted in love. Children who are observed to have the potential for bullying need extra nurturing by adults who are in a position to intervene.

… fear-based identities of shame and cowardice [are] the breeding ground of bullying behaviour.

Children who have not sensed love, nurture and respect, develop fear-based identities of shame and cowardice, the breeding ground of bullying behaviour.

Be vigilant for signs that a child is being harassed

Too often parents only learn their child has been the victim of bullying from a suicide note. Cindi Seddon, a school principal and author of two books about bullying says that signs to watch for include a change in sleeping patterns, drop in grades, lack of interest in things the child used to participate in, and mystery phone calls after which the child seems agitated. Of course all of these symptoms can be related to other things, but any one of them should prompt a discussion to investigate what is going on. Seddon says that often children fear that parents will only make things worse and are afraid to confide in them. It is important to proceed with caution, including finding out the school or sports organization’s policy and history about dealing with bullying before deciding who you will talk to.

It is clear that the cycle of bullying requires the intervention of adults if it is to be stopped. We are the leaders in home, school, and workplace who have the authority to make change. Leading by example requires that we examine our own interaction and attitudes.

If love and respect are the key weapons in the war on bullying, they are weapons we must employ consistently. Every day there are opportunities to reach out in love, ways to communicate acceptance of diversity, and respect for those who need it most. For as with most social issues, if bullying is to be abolished it is something that must happen in one heart at a time.

Marg Buller is the president of the Creative Caring Centre.  E-mail:

Originally published in Beyond Ordinary Living.  Reprinted in Encompass, a newsletter published by Winning Kids, December 2007.




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