THE BLOG
10/09/2011 10:19 pm ET | Updated Dec 09, 2011

Bullying

A new school year is up and running and the educational community is again forced to address the issue of bullying. Thirty years ago when I started my career as a child abuse and neglect therapist, I heard a definition of insanity that is quoted by third graders today: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result."

Unfortunately the traditional approach to bullying, especially since the Columbine incident in 1999, has been a testament to that definition: signs all over schools depicting a red circle with a slash through it over the word BULLIES, zero tolerance policies stated and invoked, certain kinds of dress banned, suspensions for kids who say or write things that can in any way be regarded as threatening.

It seems to make sense but for one thing: Bullying still goes on, every bit as vicious but a little further under the sensors. It makes me think of the folks who make radar and those who make radar detectors. Both simply get more sophisticated. Victims keep getting hurt and bullies become better at what they do and less respectable as human beings.

About thirty years ago when I was beginning a career as a child and family therapist, I witnessed an incident that taught me more about getting to the source of bullying than anything I've seen before or since. A tough five-year-old boy I'll call Marvin in a group of abused preschoolers was one of the toughest kids his age I'd run into. He was big for his age and tough as nails; little Popeye forearms that scared even me. There wasn't a kid in the group he couldn't take out with one punch and he knew it. But under stress he always attacked the weakest kid in the room, in this case a four-year-old girl I'll call Laurie, blinded in one eye from a blow by her mother's boyfriend. Laurie tiptoed through the world as if on rice paper, cautious of every perceived threat and visibly fearful.

Marvin walks into the room one morning, scans the room like a Hell's Angel looking for a bar fight, drops his coat and flies across the room at Laurie, who stands with her back to him holding a small doll. He brings his fist like a hammer into the middle of her back. The child therapist sees it a hair too late, flies across the room right behind him; reaches the crash scene seconds late. She drops to her knees, sliding toward him, scoops him up and surrounds him in her arms. Every other adult in the room swarms Laurie, soothing her, caressing her back, helping quiet her tears. What I expected to hear from the child therapist were threats that would have scared Ronald Reagan out of office. What I heard instead, with nearly the same intensity as the blow to Laurie's back, was, "you must be so scared!"

Marvin burst into tears. He leaned into the crook of the therapist's elbow and sobbed.

My expertise was supposed to be with adolescents and adults, but what I saw happen with children too young to disguise themselves, informed nearly all my therapeutic practices, because it didn't -- and doesn't -- take a genius (a damn good thing, too) to see that our experiences as infants and toddlers influence everything we do. How we're wired is how we're wired.

The therapy done with Marvin focused on empowerment. Into the playroom they went, where the punching bag dangled from the ceiling and superheroes and villains of every ilk lie in plastic baskets, ready to play their roles; Play Dough and artistic materials waited at the ready. Marvin acted out his anger there. He played the good guy and the bad guy, punched the bad-dad punching bag into submission, created scenarios with every possible outcome. And what he heard from the therapist at the appropriate times were: "I can't let kids get hurt here. It has to be safe. I can't stand it when kids get hurt. I can't let you hit kids; it makes me too sad." She didn't threaten him. She didn't tell him he couldn't stay if he didn't comply. She knew how all of us, in a fit of real temper, will destroy the things we love most out of self-contempt turned outward, so was unwilling to paint either Marvin or herself into a corner with an ultimatum.

There are many kinds of bullies; they're not all Marvin. Some go after their prey armed with embarrassment and humiliation; some with mean jokes. All bullies intend to diminish their victims, to render them powerless, most often a powerlessness they themselves feel.

Now it may seem on the surface that power struggling the bully, threatening zero tolerance -- bullying the bully -- should work. What the hell, overpower him or her. But if you think about it, it's a lot like suspending a kid for cutting class. Don't throw me into the briar patch! If we're going to make a real dent in the bullying issue we're going to have to address the bullies themselves; find ways to help empower them that don't include allowing them to be predators or to simply be punished. With the exception of psychopaths and sufferers of a few forms of mental illness, most human beings will gravitate toward empowerment. If it's positive in nature, we'll take it; if nothing positive is available, we'll go rogue. (I'm doing all I can to re-capture that phrase for true wordsmiths.)

The 800-pound gorillas in the kitchen, of course, are all over 21. If we are to stop bullying in schools, we have to start with teachers and administrators. If we want to stop it, we have to stop it. "Do as I say and not as I do" defies conventional brain science. They don't learn from we say, they learn from what they see. Behavior as they perceive it, works its way into their imaginations. Lectures do not.