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Thursday, May 16, 2013


I was sitting in a Starbucks yesterday and happened to have my book, No Place for Bullying, lying on the table.  While I was in a conversation with someone, a woman stopped and  stared intently at the title.  Forgetting she didn't know that I was the author, I asked her why she was interested in it.  She said she was a retired teacher but now volunteered in an assisted living home for seniors.  I remembered that I probably should tell her that I happened to be the author of the book, so I did.  Since I became an expert now in her eyes, she asked me if I thought bullying was more of an American thing or was it multi-cultural.  She also informed that me that bullying was an issue with the seniors she worked with.  She also shared that as a teacher she worked in an inner city school with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and she thought there was a minimal amount of bullying, while later in her career she taught a more middle class group of students and definitely there was definitely more.  I told her that those were good questions and observations that I would have to think about.  She said that she would look up my book on Amazon and that it was an easy title to remember.

Her questions about the cultural dimensions of bullying reminded me of an insight I heard James Garbarino make about the difference between suburban schools and inner city schools.  He said that there was less bullying in inner city schools because the social world and stratification was not of primary importance to kids, what was important was where you stood on the street not the school.  This was why gangs were prominent-they offered people a group to belong to and protection.  There was no need to bully for social status, the gang culture provided the means for gaining status.  In suburban schools, the social world of the school extends outside of the school so that what happens in school socially is of upmost importance.  In both cases however you have instances of kids having  to establish their own social structure without adults playing a role.  Perhaps a better way to say it is that adults in either case haven't figured out a way to connect with kids in way that doesn't try to control them.

If we want to look for situations where bullying isn't as prominent we should look to positive deviance examples-situations where something worked well.  I think that if you examine those cases where adults connect well with kids, you don't have to look any further than extra curriculum activities.  I recall a great documentary called Bad Times at Frederick Douglas High.  In the documentary recorded over a year's time at a high school in Baltimore you could witness firsthand examples of positive deviance in the midst of dysfunction.  While what happened in the classroom bordered  disaster, what happened in extra curriculum activities was inspiring.  They had a broadcast studio and a drama club that worked together to make various productions and they had an amazing debate team.  Their marching band was great.  In each of these extra's there were no motivation issues, no attendance issues and a great sense of community.  I wondered after watching it, why they wouldn't suspend normal operations and just have the entire school become a menu of extra curriculum activities.

What did the extra's have that the regular school didn't have?  The clubs and after school  activities were meaningful and purposeful and kids chose to be there.  The adults had high standards and demanded a lot from the students but the kids didn't feel controlled or manipulated-they felt supported and coached.  Most of all they all belonged, they all felt needed and important.  I highly doubt that there was any bullying in those clubs and activities.  There was conflict, struggle and many other emotions but the power structure that existed wasn't compatible with bullying.

We can't equate bullying with all human difficulty and struggle.  Bullying doest happen but it usually happens when there is a leadership vacuum or where the leadership dominates and almost forces people to create they own ways of meeting their need for autonomy, belonging and competence.   The answer to the problem of bullying isn't a secret-it rests in the experiences we all have had-times when we felt in control of our lives but had some structure organizing us to help, but not to control; when we felt connected and belonged regardless of how we performed and when we felt we were improving without being penalized for the mistakes we made in the process of getting better.  Is bullying everywhere? I still don't know.  I do know that we don't have to look very far to find situations where people don't have the need to bully-and they are everywhere.

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