Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
How do we recognize, deal with and prevent bullying, particularly in schools? A leading authority on bullying offered some ideas June 12 in a University of Kentucky training session called “The Meanest Generation: Teaching Civility, Empathy, Kindness and Compassion to our Angriest Children,” at Eastern State Hospital in Lexington.
|Malcolm Smith, right, between sessions|
Malcolm Smith, founder and director of the Courage to Care Project who serves on the faculty of Plymouth State University, said one myth about bullying is that it only occurs in large schools. “Actually, I’m more worried about children in a rural school,” Smith said. In rural areas, he said, bullying can be a huge problem because there’s nowhere to hide, everyone is often into everyone else’s business, and an issue can escalate into a feud when families get involved.
Smith defined bullying as a single incident or pattern of written, verbal, electronic or physical actions intended to harm a pupil or his or her property; cause emotional stress; interfere with that student’s right to an education; or disrupt the school’s operation. Smith debunked a common theory about bullying that became popular in the 1980s—that bullies lack self-esteem. “Bullies are not kids who have low-self-esteem,” Smith said. “The average bully is the kid who is a narcissist.” Smith believes that a person becomes narcissistic if he or she never learned to bond and love as a child.
He argued that a lack of empathy and rising narcissism—which is characterized by an overinflated view of one’s talents and a high level of selfishness—are the true causes of bullying. Empathy is the tendency to react to other people’s observed experiences. Research shows that 70 percent of current students score higher in narcissism and lower in empathy than they did 35 years ago. Smith believes this is related to the rise in technology, the culture of self-esteem, the decline of time spent playing—which is often when children gain social competencies—and the overexposure of children to meanness and violence through the media.
Bullies are more likely to have been involved in domestic violence and child abuse; are more likely to commit crimes, drink and smoke; and have a greater propensity toward becoming anti-social adults. Signs that a child is a victim of a bully include exclusion, fear, lack of friends, erratic attendance, depression, withdrawal or clinging to teachers and staff.
Because bullying is characterized by an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim, Smith urged school counselors and teachers not to try mediating a bullying situation, especially not by talking to both the victim and the bully in the same room or worse, leaving them to “work it out.” Smith said, “You have to educate the social-emotional deficit in the bully, and you have to comfort the victim.” Instead of simply punishing the bully, an authority must discipline him or her, which involves teaching.
To properly discipline a bully, he or she must be required to take responsibility for the behavior and explain to the authority why the behavior was wrong. Then the student must discuss alternative actions that could have been employed. Finally, the student must not only apologize but also perform an act of kindness toward the student he or she bullied.
Smith urged teachers and counselors to recognize and address bullying, explaining that it is not ever a good thing or a positive part of a growing experience, as some people think. He pointed out that adults in the workplace are protected by harassment laws and don’t have to face bullying alone, so children shouldn’t have to, either. He said to combat bullying, “model good social skills yourself, advocate for safer schools and better laws, work with your school parent-teacher organization, engage parents and students in prevention and work on culture and climate.”