A tragic cascade of bullying-related suicides has American parents up in arms, sometimes literally. With the national spotlight focused on the issue, everyone has an opinion about bullying and its causes. As an educator and researcher, I’ve been studying bullying, writing about it, and working with schools and families around the country for more than a decade. The following are the nine most unproductive assumptions, myths, and platitudes I’ve been hearing in the course of this debate.
1. Bullying is easy to spot.
Most bullying occurs in the spaces adults don’t occupy: a raucous locker room, an empty hallway, a playground corner. By early elementary school, kids are adept at stealth nastiness. The idea of the bully as bruiser who steals lunch money and makes a scene is mostly obsolete. By middle school, some research finds that boys and girls engage in equal levels of psychological aggression. And looks can be deceiving: two boys playing in the dirt could be two boys playing—or it could be one boy verbally abusing the other. Even the most compassionate teachers struggle to spot the behavior.
2. Bullies are easy to spot.
I’ve heard countless elementary-school students say things like “I tried to tell my teacher about the bully, but she said, ‘Her? No! She’s your friend!’?” Bullies are talented chameleons. The most psychologically aggressive kids are usually the ones who cop angelic poses when adults walk into the room (Eddie Haskell, anyone?). These kids possess high social intelligence. The same skills that enable them to hurt their peers are precisely what allow them to manipulate adults.
3. Bullies are unpopular and have low self-esteem.
Research is finally catching up with what parents and teachers have known for years: plenty of the most aggressive kids are confident and socially successful. Bullying and aggression can yield rich social rewards like attention, more friends, and power. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to get kids to stop: gossip and exclusion bring people together, even as they push others out. And it’s why involving kids with high social status in anti-bullying programs is so important.
4. Bullies are bullies, and victims are victims.
In fact, kids are rarely, if ever, one or the other. Social dynamics can turn on a dime. Targets can become self-protecting bullies, and bullies are unseated in startling coups. Besides, a child’s peer culture is complex and in constant flux. You may have been on top in fifth grade, but at your new, bigger middle school, you’re desperate to be included. Roles rotate and hierarchies shift. There is no single profile of a bully, or a target. Everyone is fair game.
5. This is a generational problem.
“We never acted like that when we were their age” is an oft-repeated adult adage that brings to mind a recent episode of the ABC show Modern Family. Claire frets that her daughters will discover her checkered teen history with boys. “Your kids don’t need to know who you were before you had them,” she tells the camera. “They need to know who you wish you were, and they need to try to live up to that person.”
The first thing I do when I work with young people is tell them about my own involvement with bullying and aggression. I wish more adults would come clean and level with kids about their own past. Doing this opens a channel of honest communication between youth and adults, instead of making kids feel like they are doing something no one has ever done before. If we don’t model self-reflection, how can we expect kids to do the same?
6. Bullying is about the kids.
In fact, it’s parents who can be the biggest bullies of all. In the schools I work with, teachers tell me that they can manage their classrooms, but it’s the parents who are out of control. Parents replicate the same nerve-racking hierarchies they are so quick to condemn on the playground. They exclude children and parents from parties, playdates, and coffee, or publicly gossip about other people’s children. Until parents hold themselves to the same standards we impose on our kids, real change will be impossible.
7. My child would never do that.
Aggression in children is not the central problem; denying it is. Kids are, well, kids; they’re learning the social rules and must be expected to make some mistakes. Parental denial, on the other hand, is a powerful and unexplored barrier to reducing bullying in our communities. When parents are not open to the possibility that their children can be hurtful, they reflexively defend their kids and point fingers at others. Teachers and other parents become reluctant to initiate much-needed interventions, leading to a culture of gossip and fear.
8. Anti-bullying programs and laws are the most effective response.
Bullying is an extreme form of a behavior—aggression—that almost every child confronts in different ways. While many kids are targets of bullying, countless more endure demoralizing experiences like teasing, name-calling, shoving, and exclusion—none of which may meet the definition of “bullying.” Character education and social-emotional learning curricula lay the groundwork kids need to learn how to treat each other with respect.
9. This is an isolated problem.
Finally, while the recent headlines bring much-needed attention to bullying as a major public-health problem, their horrific nature may also give us permission to separate ourselves and our schools from the discussion. But the towns where these tragic events occurred are not exceptional. The behavior that led to these suicides can be found in almost any school in this country.
For all the rules and workshops and policies that anti-bullying advocates like me call for, there’s a powerful weapon against bullying that we can use and model for our children: empathy. It doesn’t cost anything, and you don’t need to bring any experts to your school to use it. All of us—parents, teachers, mentors, big brothers and sisters—can talk with kids about what someone like Asher Brown must have been feeling as he went to school, day after day: as he was tripped down the stairs, had his backpack emptied and its contents scattered, berated with insults like “fag.” You can ask: What emotions did he feel? Is there anyone at your school who goes through that? What can you do to help that person? Where there is empathy, there is hope for respect, and the kinds of communities where every child can learn and grow in safety.