David Rodeback's Blog

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005
About Bullies: Look Out for That Passive Voice

Lately I'm hearing from some folks connected to the public schools, and now in the radio and television news, that the fashionable thing to care about this August is that some children are bullied at school. This is not exactly a news flash, of course. I was bullied at school three decades ago, and I absorbed a lot more abuse than I ever avenged or even reported. There was the time when I finally punched Will G. in the mouth for pulling my hair on the school bus - but I digress.

Being bullied didn't make school a particularly pleasant place for a while, of course, but it didn't happen every minute of every day, either, and it didn't prevent my getting a pretty good education. For me, it could have been much worse; for some, I know it is much worse.

Two flaws in the present chatter make me think our hearts are not quite connected to our heads on this topic right now. First, I haven't yet heard a clear definition of bullying. (When I do, there is no guarantee that it will be reasonable, but hope springs eternal.) And, second, I keep hearing that parents should be concerned that their children might be bullied at school. I suppose that's true, but it's not complete. (Note the passive voice, "be bullied" - but my point is philosophical, not linguistic.) That children are bullied at school is only the politically correct half of the story, not the useful half. The full story is: Children bully other children at school.

When one of my children reports being bullied at school, I generally don't get very upset. I say, there will always be bullies, even when you're an adult. Don't let it get to you. Don't fight back if you can help it, because they usually catch the second offense, not the first. If it's a significant problem, or if you're in actual physical danger, either you talk to the teacher or principal, or I will, and let's be sure to name names.

But if I learned that one of my children was bullying another child, there would be serious trouble for my child. The real solution to the problem of bullies at school is not for parents to be aware when their children are bullied. It is for parents to be aware when their children are bullies, and to do something effective about it. Unfortunately, many (not nearly all) schoolyard bullies are the offspring of bullies. Many of the rest have parents who don't think their own little Johnny or Molly would ever be a bully, or who are committed to shifting to others any blame that might threaten to land on their own child. So the problem will not actually be solved anytime soon.

Leslie Dalton writes:

Your final point is, I believe, exactly the reason the other side of the problem is more frequently addressed. Parents whose children are being bullied will act. It's always more empowering to campaign on the side that gets results.

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