Bullying is pretty awful. Surely we all agree about that.
Bullying which involves physical violence or direct threats of physical violence designed to intimidate or bend a person to one’s will should not be tolerated. In adults this can usually, and should be, dealt with severely under our existing laws. In children it should be regarded as an urgent problem for attention.
But in this day and age, since my copy of The Shorter Oxford Dictionary was printed about thirty years ago, the definition of bullying has changed. This means we all have to be very clear just exactly what we are talking about. Back then the physical component of intimidation was predominant together with power imbalances. Now we have the very significant Social Media.
I like the definition put out by the NSW Department of Education and used in NSW State Schools. It is inclusive, it covers physical bullying, and bullying in a very wide sense in so far as what constitutes intimidation is concerned. It touches on the various different ways social media can be involved. But, wisely, it does exempt one off examples of unacceptable behaviours between equals. It stresses, but not in a limiting manner, the inequality that must be present for bullying to be defined, such as size, age, numbers etc. It does not mean the more equal unacceptable behaviours should be tolerated, but it excludes them as bullying behaviours.
We talk a great deal about schoolyard “bullies” and “victims”. Often these can be, at different times and simultaneously, one and the same child. There are many children who go through childhood never having the experience of either being bullied or, conversely, of bullying. But this is, I consider, the group where where we can do the most good. It is in the training of our young children that accepting and nurturing adults can be developed. However, when I talk sometimes to my young grandchildren about bullying (and they have never reported that they have been bullied and do not seem to have bullied others) they are somewhat unclear about what the boundaries of bullying are.
An example is that a granddaughter often makes “fairy dust” with friends at school. They grind or scrape different rocks to make such dust. She reported that a child in her class had been “bullied” during the daily fairy dust ritual. When more details were obtained it appeared that this particular child had refused to share a certain colored rock that she had started to grind. The others en masse declined to let her continue in the game because of this behaviour. Now I don’t call that bullying. The game involved the sharing of rocks. If this child wanted to be included she shared. If she wants to be exclusive she must grind alone. To me this is just a question of her learning from consequences. This particularly over empathic granddaughter of mine (youngest in a biggish family) was very distressed by what I consider to be misunderstood concepts of “bullying”. She had thought that to ever exclude anyone from a game is tantamount to bullying. I do not think she is alone in this assumption. I think children can choose with whom they want to play. It is nice to encourage them to include “loaners”, but if they sometimes choose not to, this not bullying.
I recently was chatting informally with a couple of Industrial Relations lawyers who said that some complaints about what is bullying in the workplace now can now reveal an unrealistic attitude towards work hierarchy. The need to obey orders can be called bullying by an increasing number of employees especially if there are consequences threatened for specific disobedience of directions given by a work superior!
And part of the changing definition is because now we have cyber bullying. And this has become a problem in our Workplace, schools, universities and can be aimed at the teachers in those institutions. I must extend my admiration to some of the prominent women in public life and the way they deal every day with disgusting and really intimidatory bullying. Thanks from us all that they are brave and continue to express their points of view. They are targets because they speak the sort of sense bullies don’t want to hear, but because of their attitudes I would prefer to use the word “targets” and not call them “victims”. Are there men who get this sort of hate mail daily too? I have heard a couple of examples from time to time, one from Richard Glover and one from Mike Carlton. Perhaps men are also flooded with these tweets but feel they should not share (perhaps a bit like crying). It would be interesting to know, as to target them is equally condemnatory.
As a person who formerly worked with children I found working with child perpetrators of bullying quite simple. One’s mandate was clear and it seemed that some results were often achievable.
Working with the “victims” was sometimes more difficult. There one’s own feelings were helpful. I won’t go as far as to mention counter transference but whenever I felt a strong urge, not only to give the poor child a big cuddle, but to simultaneously box his or her ears, I felt there was a some work I had to do with them as well. Some victims have an amazing wish to be included in a group, but on their terms, which often are to have constant acknowledgement of their own perception of their unique difference from the others, with no reciprocal perception that “the others” are all different too.
But the most important task is to work with all the rest, the wider community of children who ultimately become most of us. It is how they will react which will make the biggest difference to any community of bullies.
How do we work with the mass of quite empathic children just like my granddaughter? How do we encourage that we must be tolerant of difference whilst still retaining the capacity to say, “We will not sit back and let you have the only different rock and yet still demand a share of the group’s”? How do we encourage each of them that sometimes they have a duty to stand up and be counted when what they have to say may cause disquiet in the group? How do we teach them that it is often more productive to work from inside the group to change it whilst still knowing how to be an individual? How do we make them aware of the difference between asserting an individual view or need and being selfish? How do we teach them to identify and to publicly condemn bullies?
And then how do we teach them, once they can speak out boldly against cases of bullying, how to cope with pride and self respect intact if they are bullied themselves – especially by bullies in cyberspace who are often lurking inside the group, not game to reveal their identities? And we must teach them that people who will not give names to their opinions are not people whose opinion is important.
But most of all we must teach them to be confident, to think about what to say and do and to pay attention to their own feelings.