MONTREAL – Much has been written on the subject of bullying. Most writers correctly differentiate between the occasional schoolyard scuffle and the persistent and pernicious harassment of an individual. Writers try profiling both the kind of child who is bullied and the kind who bullies. Scorn is generally heaped on those who stand by and fail to intervene. A plethora of “solutions” has been offered. And yet the problem persists. Worse, with social networking, it seems to be escalating.
Having taught in a variety of settings both in Canada and in Africa, and having been a high-school principal for 18 years, I’d like to offer to the discussion both my empirical research and a simple solution. (That ought to raise the hackles of those who believe that for a solution to work it must be both complex and next to impossible to implement!)
My first observation is that there is no rhyme or reason as to why one student gets bullied and the next does not. The smart student, the short student, the bespectacled student, the wallflower and the jock – each has the same chance of finding himself or herself locked in the crosshairs of a bully’s aggression. I have taught classes for students with behavioural deficits (also known as the “bad kids”). At times I had only two students in my class. Invariably, when a third student was introduced to the group, one of the three became the target! I have yet to decipher the teen-code for target selection.
My second observation is that bullies come in all shapes, sizes and intellectual capacities. They are not all products of a background where they themselves have been bullied or abused. Most cannot articulate why they act the way they do. Unfortunately, many teachers and administrators react to these students like the CIA would to a highly trained terrorist operative, rather than treating them as the confused mess of hormones and neurons we call our students.
My final observation leads to the solution I propose. I have noticed that students whose fathers are involved in their schools are far less likely to be bullied or to be bullies.
Too simple? I warned you!
Many fathers leave school and all things academic (with the exception of math and science projects) to their children’s mother. Maybe they see it as a logical division of labour; or it could be for strategic reasons; or because of availability or lack of it; or just plain laziness.
And the few fathers who darken the doors of their child’s elementary school miraculously disappear just when they are needed the most: when the child gets to high school.
Attend a school’s bake sale, Parent Participation Organization event, or home-and-school meeting, and you will think you have stepped into a women-only zone. (Thank God for these amazing, hardworking moms who offer many non-billable hours of service to cash-strapped schools.)
There are three reasons why children whose fathers are involved in their schools do not find themselves at either end of the bullying spectrum:
–I have noticed, as I have been in-volved in my children’s schools – chairing school governing boards for the past 10 years – that my children’s peers get to know me. As much as I would like to be known for some real or imagined successes in my life, to these young people I am Micah’s or Sophie’s dad. For a would-be bully, knowing that there is a dad and that he is often seen in the school is a strong deterrent.
–The second reason is the confidence it brings to a child to know that, if there is a problem, his or her dad can find the front office, and it’s a place where he has influence because of his involvement in the school. (Fair or unfair, as a principal I grant more time to the complaint of a parent who has been involved in my school than I do to the parent I have never met.) This confidence shields kids, making them resistant to verbal and psychological attacks and occasionally secure enough to stand up for others.
–Finally, a father who is involved in his child’s school sends an unmistakable message that he cares enough to take the time to know what is happening in his child’s life. It is this father who is more likely to have a relevant conversation with his child. It is this father who will be perceived to understand the teen dynamic. (Even if he needs to fake it a bit.) It is this father who will model to his son how to be a man.
So, dads, if you really want to bully-proof your child, get involved in his or her school. Go into the school’s office tomorrow and ask how you can help out. Join the home-and-school organization. Stand for election for the governing board. Attend sports events.
In doing so you will be protecting your child, and other children, from the potentially damaging effects of either side of bullying.
James Watts is the founder and principal of Education Plus High School, an alternative private school in St. Laurent, and chairman of the governing board of LaurenHill Academy in St. Laurent.