Legislating Mean Kids

I’ve been asked to speak quite a bit lately about the bullying legislation that is working its way throughout our national government, and through towns and cities across America. We received an email from our town Superintendent making us aware that the response to legislation was in place – in the form of a bully document – for parents to review and comment on.

I read the entire document and was sobered when I reached the end. We are trying to legislate bullying and “protect our children,” but nowhere are we focused on trying to teach them how to get along in the first place! Here in Massachusetts we have the sad case of Phoebe Prince, the beautiful young woman who reportedly killed herself because of bullying. Her parents, and the parents of those accused of bullying her, have had their lives torn apart. I mourn for all of them, but I don’t believe that trying to legislate behavior is going to change anything.

I had an interesting conversation with my daughter – now in 9th grade – who reported to me that she was bullied terribly in 7th grade. I actually remember my time in 7th grade vividly; it is when I hid under my desk because the “mean girls” were going to beat me up at recess! My daughter talked about very hurtful things that she experienced and said she’d never want to go back to 7th grade (who would??) but she realized that having had that experience has made it easier for her to deal with kids in high school who are mean to her.

I asked her if she would have brought the problems in 7th grade to anyone’s attention if there had been bullying legislation in place. She said, “Mom! The only thing worse than a bully is a tattletale. I would have never said anything!” So therein lies a lot of the problem. This extreme approach we are taking means that certain children will be allowed to get back at others by complaining about them (I could write an entire blog on the wrongly accused kids I have also talked to) and the ones who are really suffering will continue to suffer in silence.

But, more importantly, why aren’t we teaching our kids some fundamental communication and relationship skills? Why aren’t we looking at the fact that kids are bullies for a reason? They bully because they are in some sort of emotional pain and are lashing out. And why are kids so affected by bullies? Why is it so easy to hit at a child’s self-esteem? We don’t look at ways we could strengthen the underlying emotional response on both sides. Why can’t some of the school focus be on instituting programs that teach kids life skills about how to understand themselves and others?

While I had terrible bullying experiences as a kid, the worst bullies I’ve found have actually been in my adult life: bosses, co-workers and a business associate who were much more difficult than the 7th grade mean girls. My daughter pointed out to me that she would like to have the experience in school about how to deal with these issues, so she isn’t going into adulthood not knowing what to do. I have the same experience – having had the bullies early in life, helped me a great deal with figuring them out in adulthood!

I hate to see any child being picked on. Calling names, taunting and teasing are all painful, hurtful things. But instead of punishment, why don’t we spend our public school time and money on trying to find root causes and work with kids to learn good communication, how to manage anger and depression, and how to deal with frustration or a dislike of another person? Can you imagine how different the world might be if we were learning this at a young age?