On Feb. 29, Lady Gaga will launch a foundation dedicated to creating caring communities and stopping bullying. Hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard's Berkman Center, Lady Gaga will be joined by Oprah and other celebrities. A powerful new film, "Bully," will be widely released at the end of March, and many Americans in recent years have been galvanized by a blizzard of tragic bullying stories.
Yet too often in the past a problem plaguing children like bullying has received huge waves of public attention that simply never translates into any positive changes in kids' lives. What will it take to capitalize on this attention? How can we curb this problem once and for all?
We can start by recognizing where the main solution lies. There is a tendency to simply blame bullying on "bad" kids or peer groups or destructive media. But bullying often has deep roots in parents' attitudes and behavior, and stopping bullying begins with us.
How can parents prevent bullying? Parents in recent years have been flooded with articles and books that guide them in shielding, or "bully-proofing," their own child. But just protecting our own kids won't stop bullying, and this guidance reinforces the damaging tendency of many parents to just focus on their own children. The best way to prevent bullying -- and many other forms of cruelty and harassment -- is to encourage and enable children to care for and take responsibility for each other. Research indicates that bullying is greatly reduced in particular when children who witness bullying stand up for the victim. Bullying brings home to parents our fundamental moral responsibilities. How can we help our children widen their circle of concern and stand up for other children? How can we help our children build more just and caring communities?
Bullying, unlike more typically developmental teasing and hurtful remarks, is commonly defined as prolonged or frequent cruelty to others, often characterized by imbalances of power. This kind of cruelty can produce intense and often lasting feelings of shame in children, a sense that they are defective in some core way. About 30 percent of children are bullied each year on school property alone. Adults' understandable reflex is to curb this kind of bullying by punishing perpetrators. Yet this strategy alone usually fails to stop bullying, and sometimes it backfires.
On the other hand, bystanders -- especially a friend of the bully -- tend to be far more effective. A bystander is present in 85 percent of bullying situations, and bystanders who intervene appear to prevail over half the time. Yet in the vast majority of cases bystanders elect not to intervene.
What can we do as parents to help our children stand up for others? Research suggests that parents bolster their children's ability to act independently and to withstand disapproval when they respect their children's capacity as independent thinkers from early ages and give them input into family decisions. All the things parents do to build in their children a sturdy sense of self make it easier for children to hold their ground against a powerful peer. As parents we strengthen the self, for example, when we praise appropriately, know and appreciate who our children are and maintain their trust and respect. Nurturing empathy in children from early ages certainly matters as well. That means in part helping children appreciate people who may not be on their radar, whether a bus driver, a custodian or a new child in class. It means helping children consider the perspectives of those they're in conflict with as well as people who are different from them in customs or background or other characteristics.
While it's vital that we convey high moral expectations and underscore the importance of sticking up for others, we also must listen carefully to our children and understand the complexity of their social worlds and ethical decisions. We as parents will be more real and valuable to children if we pay careful attention to their perceptions and experiences of bullying and discuss when and how to stand up for someone else. We need to talk to them about the complexities of balancing our needs with others and what consequences are worth and not worth bearing. We need to help them figure out how to challenge someone else constructively.
But perhaps most important, stemming bullying will require us to seriously examine our parenting priorities. As a good deal of research now indicates, we live in an era when many parents are intensely focused on their children's self-esteem, happiness and achievements, not on how well they care for others. And in all sorts of subtle ways we can prioritize happiness over taking responsibility for others. Too many of us, for example, don't push our children to fulfill obligations that might distress them. We let our children write off friends they find annoying, or fail to reach out to a friendless child on the playground, or quit a team or chorus without asking them to consider what it means for the group. How many of us simply tell our children that their classrooms, schools and neighborhoods are communities to which they have obligations?
Just as worrisome, many of us as parents are failing to model for our children a sense of responsibility for others. Over and over we have heard from teachers that many parents are occupied with their own child and care little about other children in the classroom. "It's a dog fight," one recently retired teacher says, driven out of the profession in part by his fatiguing battles with parents. "Parents are out of control. They're always seeking an advantage for their own kid... they lobby for a gifted class or they want their kid to get extra attention... and they don't care how they might be hurting other kids." Some parents say they want kids with behavior problems immediately removed from the classroom because they believe their own child's learning is compromised. But that message certainly doesn't convey responsibility for others and the community. At least for some period of time, we as parents ought to encourage teachers to work with that child and ask our own child how she/he might support the struggling child.
It is, of course, a great deal easier and tidier for us as parents to simply wrap our attention around our own child or to periodically remind our child to respect others. But such bland reminders will never get us where we need to go. Our children's moral development is deeply interwoven with our own. If we want our children to be fair, courageous and humane, we have to take a close, hard look at whether those values are priorities in our parenting, and whether we are living those values day to day.