The ongoing tragedy of lives of young victims being lost to suicide breaks our hearts. The only very tiny silver lining is this: it demands that we, the grownups, take bullying seriously and to do whatever needs to be done to make the world safer for our kids.
The Orlando Sentinel has done surprisingly well in examining the issue, but not always with success. Columnist Leslie Postal recently suggested that we overuse and misuse the word Bully. At one level she’s right, but fundamentally most of us understand that it’s not gentle teasing, it’s not the right word to complain about your brother taking the last cupcake, and it’s not about kids calling their teacher a rude name behind her back.
Bullying is repeated, unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. As writer Emily Brazelon explains, it’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him or her miserable.
We understand the concern that a zero tolerance policy can backfire, and that mislabeling ordinary conflict as bullying clouds the issue. At the same time, one of the most harmful things a teacher or parent can do is to try to minimize the discomfort of a child who feels targeted or rejected by peers.
“Just ignore it” is useless advice. Prompting the child to believe that some level of cruelty is acceptable isn’t a good strategy. Asking the child to use another word instead of “bullying” doesn’t diminish the pain.
Columnist Darryl Owens is a bit more on target, reminding parents of young bullies that they can – and must – intervene by taking away computers and phones, monitoring their child’s activities better, and stepping up whenever and however good parenting requires it. But, as Owens notes, determined teens quickly find workarounds to every rule and every restriction.
Neither columnist talked about the single greatest strategy to reduce bullying– the power of peer pressure and peer advocates. In the middle of the struggle between bully and victim there are dozens of bystanders who might be able to make a difference if they had the insight, strategies and courage to intervene.
We cannot fully protect any child from hurt feelings and upsetting experiences. But we can teach our children to notice when someone else is feeling left out, to reach out in kindness when a classmate is being taunted, and to use their power to speak up on behalf of others.
That is the core of the Holocaust Center’s UpStanders: Stand Up To Bullying initiative. It’s a central lesson of the Holocaust, where a few brave rescuers were willing to save the lives of Jews in spite of the risk to their own safety and comfort. It’s the Golden Rule. It’s what we want our kids to learn young and carry into adulthood. Whether you call it bullying or just plain unkindness, we want our kids to know that it’s wrong, and that people who perpetuate these acts of unkindness should be answerable for their actions.