We have to stop blaming kids.
Like most controversial subjects in our hyper media landscape, bullying is under examination. Unfortunately, that examination is so far superficial – with predictable villains and innocents.
But the “why” of bullying is at once deeper and more complex than how it is now being described.
By now the story is disturbingly familiar. A child is bullied and traumatized by a perpetrator who has taken advantage in some malicious way. Parents are shocked and upset that their child is under attack. Teachers and school officials are flummoxed and overwhelmed by the hidden complexity of the problem. Sometimes they hide behind the cloak of school privacy or feel like deer in headlights but mostly they struggle with how to break down this very real problem.
Little is ever resolved and too often the problem is left to parents to manage their child’s torment and unhappiness privately and sometimes tragically.
As readers and parents, we leave these stories angry and confused, generally blaming the perpetrator. How can children be that cruel?
As the Dalai Lama said, we are not born compassionate; we learn compassion just as we learn cruelty, empathy and kindness. We must practice our humanity to embody our humanity and schools have never been in the business of teaching what is now called social and emotional learning. As a result, left to their own devices, children often work out the more complex social and emotional aspects of who they are – on the proverbial playground – in cruel and childish ways.
When growing up, few adults guided me in the social and emotional areas of my development and little has changed. Bullying may be a more pervasive and insidious today and still, adults are notably absent.
In “Waiting for Superman,” the dramatic documentary about our failing public schools, former DC School Chancellor Michele Rhee places blame on adults unwilling to put kids first in terms of getting their learning needs met.
This unwillingness to place children’s learning (and developmental) needs at the forefront of education is where the problem lies. It is right that we focus on teacher effectiveness because teachers create the environment for learning. But, even the best teachers cannot take real and consistent time for non-academic needs. The problems of bullying is essentially relational and “relationship” is not taught in school.
It is the caring, attuned teacher who is most coveted by parent and student. These “special” teachers effectively communicate by naturally taking on the role of a firm but loving parent. They individualize student needs and resist branding kids as “problems.” They grow alongside students and are flexible and creatively incorporate social and emotional learning into their classroom language. They understand that a well-adjusted child is a child whose mind is open to learning.
But another, more dominant group of adults have designed a system of education that ignores the social and emotional aspects of development, allowing for a Lord of the Flies mentality to take place in schools and classrooms. As one teacher said, “I’m sick to death of being held responsible for whether they’re happy or not. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure they are getting their education and that does not include dealing with the emotional stuff. I have no training in that and definitely no time.”
Interpersonal problems between students are not the fault of kids but the fault of a system that is not tending to and caring for students’ social emotional education.
There are no bad kids, just bad systems.
We need to stop blaming kids. Adults need to create learning environments that infuse students with a stronger sense of sense of self and connection to community. That is our responsibility. Not theirs.