Bullying and Earthquakes have a lot in common. Both can be dangerous and significantly damage lives. Both require education so we know what to do if they happen. Both make headline news, and both create a sense of fear asking us “Are we prepared?” or “What would we do?”.
Fortunately bullying and earthquakes have another similarity: They are not common. I have spent the last 15 years as a classroom teacher, counsellor and administrator, and when I think of the thousands of children I have had the pleasure of working with and the hundreds of conflicts I have helped them navigate, there are very few incidents that I would classify as bullying. I see kindness and compassion in our kids far more frequently than I see bullying, just as we have far more safety drills than actual tremors.
Don’t get me wrong – I do not take bullying lightly, nor would I underestimate the power of a real earthquake.
The trouble I have is that the attention given to the ‘bullying’ word hurts our children much more than it protects them. Here’s why:
1. It focuses on the negative. Anti-bullying campaigns focus on what we do not want to see. They encourage negative energy and a fight mentality. Mother Teresa was once asked why she does not participate in anti-war campaigns. She replied “I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I will be there”. We often find what we are looking for. This February, students in Maple Ridge & Pitt Meadows will be wearing pink shirts that say Kindness Counts, focussing on the behaviour we want to see.
2. It creates labels. When we focus on bullying, children and parents look at conflict to identify the victim and the bully. Rarely do children find themselves in one sided conflict, yet society’s obsession with the bullying word puts all the blame on one side of the conflict. Through conversation and peace keeping, students can learn to understand one another and the impact of their words and behaviours.
3. Sometimes the word ‘bullying’ leads to bullying. When a child or parent identifies another child as a ‘bully’, this information often spreads. I hear children on the playground who don’t even know the child in question say “my friend (or my mom in some cases) said that boy is a bully”. These labels lead to assumptions about the child in question’s character. When my children describe a child with mean behaviour I ask them what they know about that child. Have they invited that child to play? Is that child ever included? So often ‘bullies’ are kids who are hurt inside and need our love more than anyone.
4. Bullying is punitive. Punitive systems teach shame and self doubt which foster more negative behaviours. Restorative systems strengthen children and help repair the harm that has been done to relationships or the community.
5. The word bullying creates panic. Teaching kids that conflict is natural with friendships, families, careers and marriages allows children to accept that conflict will occur and gives them the confidence that they will be able to handle it.
The Vancouver School District has created a wonderful resource to help parents and educators differentiate between peer conflict, mean behaviour and bullying. Peer conflict is a natural part of play and child development, whereas bullying is intentional, repetitive, and an abuse of power. Peer Conflict, Mean Behaviour or Bullying This document is a great resource allowing parents and teachers to ask great questions before assuming bullying is at play. Jumping to conclusions about bullying harms our children’s ability to keep their power and resolve conflict effectively.
We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond. Education, rather than fear, will prepare us for bullying and earthquakes, should they happen.