How To Stop a Bully
Even as the Harvey Weinstein-produced film Bully falls flat, Jewish schools are trying new programs that do more than simply raise awareness
Our other task is to empower bystanders to stand up to bullies. But we can’t expect them to do it in a vacuum. (You see that in the movie, when an entire school bus full of children, plus the bus driver, ignore or mock the boy being pounded on.) We need to create an environment in which kids have the support to speak up and the expectation that kindness is standard operating procedure. “The school-wide programs that work are effective on multiple levels,” Novick said. “The theory is that one has to get bystanders to send a message through the peer culture that bullying isn’t acceptable; they can take the bullies down a notch from their power base. But you can’t get them to do it if they’re surrounded by a culture of adults that aren’t caring bystanders. We need shared responsibility: We make this place. You need rules and consequences, and that’s a schoolwide thing.”
Despite our notions of Jewish kids being smart and intellectual, bullying can be as prevalent in Jewish schools as anywhere else. I have friends who’ve pulled their kids out of Jewish day schools that valued achievement over kindness, where students and teachers alike conveyed disgust for kids with dyslexia, Asperger’s, sensory processing issues, or other learning differences. Jewish schools and shmancier secular schools may also have issues with girl bullying (more contextual and more insidious than the physical bullying that both the movie and my colleague Liel restrict themselves to discussing) and with bullying magnified by social media and technology.
At the same time, though, parents at upper-middle-class schools who’ve been sensitized to the trendiness of the word “bullying” and who take helicopter parenting to new heights tend to see all teasing as bullying. “There’s a difference,” one parenting expert told me, “but oversensitive parents tend to call about every little unkindness. Sometimes the school is right to tell parents to back off, which can be tough for upper-middle-class parents to hear. But intervening all the time can really hurt kids in the long run; ultimately, kids feel good about handling their own problems, and if we undermine them and give them the message that they can’t handle things, we’re not doing them any favors.”
Some Jewish schools are tackling the problem thoughtfully. SAR Academy, for instance, a Jewish day school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, has recently started using Social Decision Making, a research-based program by anti-bullying expert Maurice Elias; the school has already seen a reduction in bullying and teasing. Around 20 Jewish schools use Novick’s BRAVE program.
But it can be challenging to prove to Jewish parents that they’re sacrificing something valuable on the altar of achievement. “What’s more important: Being a mensch or getting into an Ivy League college?” Schwab asked. “Some Jewish schools need to stand up to parents more and say, ‘We’ll prepare them for college, but first we‘re going to make them mensches. We need to put derekh eretz first, and then academics.’ Schools have to engage the parents, teachers, and the board—everyone needs to be on the same page.”
Lest we feel too hopeless, Novick pointed out that in some ways, our people are ahead of the game. “We have our Jewish masoret [tradition] about being upstanding bystanders on a humanitarian and individual level; there have been so many individual Jews who’ve made a difference by not standing idly by while people are tormented. I think it’s in our religious heritage because we know all too well what it feels like to be victims. But the fact that something’s in our genotype doesn’t mean it’s always being expressed in the phenotype. We have a long way to go to make it part of our children’s being that they can’t stand by and watch another person suffer.” On screen, or in life.
While Bully doesn’t offer a lot of useful, concrete solutions, other resources do.
• Dr. Michele Borba, my favorite parenting expert, offers strategies parents can share with kids to help them speak up when other kids are being mean, as well as a fascinating Dateline segment actually showing how one “cool” kid can have an impact by sticking up for a nerdy kid.
• Here’s where you can learn what to do when your daughter is dealing with mean girls.
• Here’s how to recognize your own kid’s bullying tendencies.
• Give your 3rd- through 6th-grader the new novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio, the best kids’ book about bullying I’ve ever read. Unlike the movie, the novel shows how hard it is to stand up to bullies, how seductive a bully can be, and how challenging it can be to change from being a bystander to being an ally. The story of a boy with facial deformities in an elite prep school, it’s moving, funny, a very quick read, and a great book for parents to discuss with kids. The portrayal of a cultured, well-off mother who couches her bullying in false concern for others should make many parents squirm.
• Teaching Tolerance is a terrific organization that offers a magazine and teaching kits free to teachers. Its website has tons of resources on being kind. Teaching Tolerance is perhaps best-known for Mix It Up At Lunch Day, an event in which thousands of schools participate, when kids are encouraged to sit with people they don’t usually sit with in the cafeteria. You’d be surprised at the impact mixing up the usual groups can have.
Lastly, there is one useful piece of information connected to the documentary. On the vast and mostly unhelpful Bully website is a section called Creating Just and Caring Communities: A Road Map for Parents, created by the Bullying Prevention Initiative at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. (It’s in PDF form, and hard to find on the flash-heavy site, but go to Download Tool Kits for Parents and you’ll find it.) The upshot: Parents need to stop obsessing about our kids’ own self-esteem and happiness, and focus on their concern for others (a counterintuitive notion for many parents today). “It means encouraging our children to give other children credit for their achievements, requiring children to be respectful of others even when they’re preoccupied, and letting our children know when they’re not listening to others or dominating the airwaves in conversations,” the Harvardians say. Parents need to set expectations that kids will do chores and be kind as a matter of course, not as something we applaud. We need to insist that our kids be nice even to dorky kids. We need to teach them to respect difference. We need to point out examples of injustice and unfairness in the news. And I loved this little nugget: “Almost all parents think they’re good role models for their kids. But often as parents we are very focused on our own children, and we don’t model concern for other people’s children. Many parents, for example, want children with behavior problems or special needs removed from a classroom because those children are interfering with their children’s learning. Our children are not likely to develop respect and concern for others who are struggling if we don’t model this concern.”
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