Camper fishing off the dock at Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park
October 31, 2013

Teach a Kid to Fish

Taking Action on Bullying

I think it is wonderful that bullying is getting so much attention these days. There are countless foundations, awareness-raising groups, clubs at schools, and even promises of national legislation against bullying. But although recognizing and condemning it is an important first step, it’s not going to solve the problem. I always ask prospective staff members who I’m interviewing to tell me about a time when they were involved in or witnessed a bullying situation. Most tell about a time when they saw a friend being bullied or were bullied themselves, and didn’t do anything for fear of social consequences. When I ask what they would do differently if they could go back, they say “comfort the victim and tell on the bully.” But this black-and-white view of the problem, and polarizing approach to solving it is perhaps even making it worse.

Joanne is often asked to speak in schools about Arowhon’s anti-bullying program and she made a particularly poignant presentation at ICS (U of T’s laboratory school) last week. She proposed that taking action on bullying requires more than just rules and punishment for breaking them; we must teach kids the RELATIONSHIP SKILLS they need to avoid and combat it themselves. This appears to be particularly hard for parents, whose instinct is to step in and solve things for their kids.  I read an entertaining piece yesterday about how hard it is for parents when  their kids go off to camp (read it here). The punch line was “the truth at the heart of parenting: you’re doing it best when you’re teaching them to leave you.” Like the old adage about teaching a man to fish, the same is true with teaching your child to stand up for themselves.

At camp, we teach kids to use “I statements” when the feel they are being treated badly, and to enquire as to WHY the “bully” is acting that way. Joanne says that in over 25 years as camp director, she has only seen 4 “true” bullies (those from whom we were not able to evoke empathy). Mostly, however, the kids we label as “bullies” have very good reasons for acting the way they do (i.e. they want power, they feel wronged by the victim, etc.), they just don’t know good ways to achieve these things. When we find out what it is they are seeking and teach them better ways to get it, they are no longer bullies.

A line that resonated with me from Jo’s recent speech was that like a car, relationships need regular tune-ups. If we let our cars go too long without attention, the consequences will be much greater than if we do regular maintenance work. Likewise with relationships. Schools often say they are committed to combatting bullying, but don’t have enough time to add an extra class on relationship skills. Sure it would take a bit of time away from Math and History, but if kids felt emotionally safe in their classrooms, imagine how much more efficiently they would learn… both intellectual AND emotional literacy.

By: Mara Kates

Like the old adage about teaching a man to fish, the same is true with teaching your child to stand up for themselves.

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