Re-thinking The War on Bullying

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It’s no secret that middle school girls can be mean. But I’m not so sure the current wave of anti-bullying rhetoric is going to do a darn thing to stop the bad behavior.

You see, most mature adults perceive as unacceptable the thoughtless exclusionary actions of adolescents (particularly girls, in my experience) that translate into teasing, ostracizing or simply ignoring their peers who look, speak, or behave in even the teeniest way different from their own “cool” selves.

But adolescent girls don’t see it that way. They’re like a pack of puppies that tramples the runt of the litter to get their share of food. It’s purely a survival tactic.

True, we’re only talking about social survival. But since social acceptance during adolescence is as or more important than pretty much anything else in life to this age group, the typical adolescent will do whatever it takes to maintain her social status among peers. That said, the “be nice” anti-bullying messages are likely to fall on deaf ears. That said, I believe both the target of the message, and the message itself, need to change.

Rather than wasting time targeting bullies, how about addressing those who are bullied with these messages: Be strong. Know yourself. Like yourself. And make friends with other kids who like you. Those mean kids? They’re not worth your time. You’ll have more fun without them. By extension, their parents need to get the word too. It’s a tough message for adolescents to internalize, but in some cases it seems even more difficult for parents to absorb.

I’ve seen some parents (moms in particular) try so hard to create a social circle for their daughters—even engineering social gatherings with the very peers who have rejected their child. The result? Not only does the poor girl continue to get rejected; now her mother’s a social pariah too.

Parental efforts at engineering friendships between adolescent girls, some of whom already have decided they don’t want to be friends with a given kid (for whatever inane and invisible reason to us as adults), are probably as effective as schools’ anti-bullying messages. But I’m not suggesting schools do nothing.

Rather than preaching to adolescents the importance of inclusion, schools might try just doing it. At lunch, for example, a time when the queen bees typically sit together and exhibit their social “worthiness,” schools could institute a policy whereby students have assigned seats that alternate every few weeks.

It may not create new “BFFs,” but it will break up the lunch-time social dominance and at least introduce students to kids they wouldn’t have talked to otherwise. Assigned seats in classes can do the same thing. And when schools recognize thick cliques, they might take the extra time to make sure the key players in these tight circles are separated in homerooms and classes the following year.

Because these bully prevention strategies are not the norm, they may be perceived as risky propositions. And clearly, no one wants to assume responsibility for the negative and even potentially tragic effects of not doing enough to stop bullying—myself included.

Having been on every side of the bullying fence, I don’t take the topic lightly. I’ve been a co-conspirator in schoolyard bully tactics, I’m ashamed to say. I’ve also been the butt of jokes and bequeathed a brutal nick name as a teenager that still stings. I’ve seen my own kids ostracize and be ostracized. Reflecting on the whole nasty business, I believe anti-bullying strategies need to be re-thought so that the adolescent “runts” stop getting run over by mean girls.

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  1. There are girls who already show exclusionary and entitled behavior even during pre-school years. I’ve seen it nipped in the bud by caring teachers and parents, and I’ve seen it ignored by people unwilling to address the issue. Bullying isn’t always targeted at the ‘runt of the litter’ – sometimes it’s someone who threatens the bully’s sense of superiority and creates jealousy by being either a better student, a better athlete, or possessing some trait or thing the bully wants. Unfortunately with some girls, there is also bullying based on appearances – again, not just ‘different’ but someone who may threaten the bully’s sense of being ‘the prettiest.’ We discovered the hard way at a local private school that touts itself as being the best in town that there are administrators and teachers who are not only very ignorant about actively addressing bullying (vs. lip service), but who may be unwilling to deal effectively with the situation because it may negatively impact their fundraising and social encounters with the parents and grandparents. They may also be so ignorant as to say that your child needs to ‘toughen up.’ Unfortunately, there are girls who would rather safely ‘join the herd’ (especially at a small school) to avoid being a target themselves and keep quiet about the bullying, rather than tell their ‘friend’ that she’s acting like an insecure jerk. Children spend the majority of their day at school and should feel safe – physically and socially. By showing support for EACH student EQUALLY, schools can reinforce positive behavior that is (hopefully) already being taught at home.

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