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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Lessons from a viral video

Putting politics aside (not always an easy thing to do), even his most ardent rivals would probably agree that Mitt Romney is a good man.  He is a devoted husband, loving father and has a led a good life.  He has been a successful person in many endeavors.  His parents did a good job of raising him and I am sure that they were rightfully very proud of him.  He did, however, as a teenager commit an act of bullying that he would be the first to admit was wrong.  Should he be perpetually condemned for that act?  Should he be considered a "bad" person because of that act?  Should that act be considered sign of poor parenting?  Was he a "monster" deserving of death threats for what he did?  Should he had received a criminal record and possibly served time in prison for that act? Was a severe consequence necessary for him to learn that it was wrong?  What would have happened if that act had been caught on video and shown to millions of people?

I raise these questions in light of the recent incident of bullying of the bus monitor in Greece, NY.  Let me state very clearly that what those students did and said was unacceptable.  Their words and actions were mean and hurtful.  No person should be treated the way the bus monitor was treated.  There is never an excuse for disrespect toward a person.   They should (and have already) received negative consequences for their actions.  Should their words and actions be condemned-yes!  Should they be condemned as people, labelled as "monsters" and considered criminals-no!  How should we interpret or  explain what they did without excusing it?

 I think the bus monitor herself had the best response to that question.  When she was asked if criminal charges be brought against them, she said no.  When asked if they were "bad" kids, she said no and that deep inside they were good.  Since she has been around kids for a long time, she added that if each student was with her one to one, those comments would not have been made.  She said that when the students get together as a group they act differently and say things to show off to each other.

Kids especially teenagers say and do stupid things especially in groups and for groups.  They also do risky and dangerous things and sadly they often do mean and hurtful things. These things happen not because they are bad or because their parents have failed in raising them the right way.  These things happen because kids are not adults and they still are learning how to live life the right way.  Part of learning to live the right way means they will make mistakes, and unfortunately some of those mistakes that can have serious consequences for themselves and others.   I have yet to meet anyone, however, who cannot recall something or many things they did in their teen years that they regret.    All of us look back at things we did and wonder what possessed us to do them.  (Check out this revealing article on the teenage brain - it can help us remember that growing up is not easy). 

Kids are "works in progress".  They have great potential for doing good and for doing bad and it is our responsibility to believe in, nurture  and expect the positive/good in them.  They look to us to help them discover who they really are.  We "tell" them who they are especially when they "screw up"-they need us to help them interpret their mistakes and failures in a way that allows them to live and grow for another day and another opportunity.  They will and do take us at our word.  If we put negative labels on them in response to their mistakes and failures,  those labels "stick" and  can take a long time to come off, if they ever do.  We get what we expect-so we have to expect the positive even in the face of many mistakes kids make in the process of growing up.  We need to give them the right and hopeful interpretation of who they are especially in their moments of need.

Unfortunately, it can be very easy and tempting for the media to play up the "good versus evil" scenario and condemn the kids and their parents.  The media plays to an audience who often wants and needs to feel morally superior to these "character flawed" kids and their "inadequate" parents.  Such a media drama creates a larger audience than having a meaningful discussion of the event and more importantly of what our students need from us in order to learn these important life lessons.   It is, sadly, easier to condemn than to face our real responsibility to our children.

I would be tempted just to write off the media circus that now surrounds these type of events as just the way things are, however, these "ratings driven" media dramas do make it harder to have the type of discussions that can lead to effective bullying prevention.   When these events are portrayed the wrong way, it can make the atmosphere too charged and polarized for the type of discussions we need to have  and that our children need us to have.  Sadly it seems we live in a very harsh culture where people are afforded zero margin for error and find little if any empathy or compassion when their failures are public and visible.  (I often think that the phrase "Let him without sin cast the first stone..." would not prevent some people from throwing stones given the self righteousness we hear from many people in response to the "sins" of others.)   

There are many debatable points about bullying prevention; there is one point that I strongly feel is undebatable: effective bullying prevention requires students,  schools, parents and the entire community to work together and support each other in addressing the problem.  It is too difficult and complex a problem for simple solutions that direct blame toward any one group or segment of society.  Too much time and energy is wasted doing so.  In reality when it comes to bullying, no one is to blame but we all are responsible for doing something to prevent and reduce as much of it as we can.  We need to help each other learn the right lessons from these viral videos.

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