Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bully Bully

My son had a bad time in early elementary school, getting teased and picked on at school -- classroom, playground, and bus. He's also a hot tempered kid who still reacts with his hands rather than his words -- in other words, if you make him mad, he's likely to hit you. And he's not good at decoding other people's emotions, so it's hard for him to notice when a friendly game of wrestle has gone too far. All of these things make me very aware of bullying, especially at school.

Barbara Coloroso has written several kids books, some of which I've read. A friend recommended The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander to me, and I enjoyed reading through it. She talks about the different roles, and how kids can move between them, and the dangers of ignoring bullying and just assuming it's a normal part of childhood. I particularly liked her distinction between teasing and taunting (my son was not "teased" at school, he was taunted), with teasing being consensual, mutual, and fun. Taunting is none of these things. I like her idea of teaching kids what they can control and what they can't in a relationship. I'm familiar with her three types of family -- brick wall, jellyfish, and backbone (guess which one she approves of!), but I'm not as convinced that families are that simple. I think children themselves have a great deal to do with how the family dynamics are set. I liked the sections of the Bystander, and how children can expect better of themselves than just silently being glad to be on the sidelines.

In general, I find her ideas good but not original, and I tend to hate her examples. When she talks about how to deal with a sister caught hurting her brother, I found the child's reactions to the "correct" discipline techniques unbelievable and wildly optimistic. I wonder if Colorosa had handy children who did respond that way, and that's why she has such a rosy belief in discipline as opposed to punishment. As a child and as a parent, I think the distinction is more in the heads of the parents than in the child. It's a nice idea, but in the real world many children will have the same reaction to her supportive discipline as they would to the frowned upon punishment.

My final quibble is that the book addresses bullying from elementary through high school but doesn't really discuss the difference between problems in young children and in teens. The bully is demonized in most of the book as a evil person bent on ruining the life of some contemptuous worm, but in my experience elementary school bullies aren't that complex. I'm not even talking about my son, who by the definition of this book is not a bully, but the kids who hurt him in first and second grade weren't evil, they were just clueless. I do like the attitude that it is a school's responsibility to be a place where bullying is not tolerated -- this should be true in all schools, elementary, junior high, and high school. I recommend this book, but I found it to be more the start of a dialogue than a set of answers. B+

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