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Bullyproof Your Child

Bullies

The secret? It's a game. THE ONLY RULE IS: IF you get upset, you lose.

"Insult me," says Izzy Kalman during our first phone call. "Go ahead. Insult me." Kalman is a school psychologist in New York City, leader of antibullying workshops, and the author of Bullies to Buddies: How to Turn Your Enemies into Friends. Depending on your view, he's either a pushy ideologue or the sanest voice in the fast-growing world of "bullyproofing" children. Or both.

Insulting a subject is not my typical interview technique, but Kalman uses role-play to teach kids about bullying and he wants me to learn something. "It's a game," he explains. "Your job is to insult me and my job is to make you stop."

"I bet you're not even a real school psychologist," I offer, unsure how to begin.

"I am too!" Kalman yells back.

His strong reaction surprises me — and spurs me on. "Your approach is so Psychology 101. How obvious can you get?"

"It is not obvious!" Kalman cries, with a catch in his voice. "It's really, really important stuff. No one's doing this."

"Oh, right. You're the only one. Oh, you and B. F. Skinner."

"You don't understand!" he cries again.

"Yes I do. I bet you don't even help any children."

"I do too! I help tons of children all the time!"

Suddenly Kalman breaks the rhythm. "Let's stop here. Okay, now tell me: Who won?"

"I did!" I say proudly.

"Why?"

"Because you got upset and you couldn't make me stop."

"That's right. By getting upset and trying to make you stop, I was actually making you continue. Did you have fun?"

"Well, yes." I reply. The uncomfortable truth is it felt good to sharpen ever crueler barbs and hone my voice into a tone of flat superiority I didn't know I possessed.

"It's fun to tease and insult, isn't it?" he says.

"Yes, really!" I say, amazed.

"Welcome," says Kalman, "to the human race."

What, exactly, is bullying?

I'll start off with some definitions. Bullying is intentionally hurtful, repetitive behavior — not a one-time or random act — and it usually involves an uneven playing field. A kid with greater physical or social power dominates a kid with less; think Biff Tannen, always shaking down George McFly for his homework in Back to the Future.

Researchers break bullying down to four major types. Physical bullying encompasses kicking, punching, shoving someone into a locker, and so on. Verbal bullying is all about name-calling and taunting, like my insult session with Izzy Kalman. Next comes social/relational bullying, as in the Mean Girls type of torture. A kid gets abused not by another kid but by an entire peer group. It's often a pack of girls, or "bully-princesses," as author Barbara Coloroso (The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander) calls them.

Like most people I know (at least, the most interesting people!), I did my time as a bullying victim. As a seventh grader in Dayton, Ohio, I learned that my late-maturing figure was wrong, my plastic turquoise cat's-eye glasses were wrong, my inability to return a volleyball was wrong, my good grades were wrong, and the way I looked in the snap-up flamingo-pink PE uniform was almost criminally wrong. Even my name was wrong. "Melissa?" the bully-princesses sneered. "Isn't that the name of the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty?!" No, her name was Maleficent, but for my tormentors it was close enough.

Well, at least the Internet didn't exist then. The fourth and newest category of bullying is cyber-bullying, which takes verbal bullying and social bullying to almost unimaginable extremes. Taunts and rumors, unflattering photos, and compromising videos can be posted on the web anonymously and circulated endlessly, with shattering results.

I began researching this topic half-wondering if those bully-princesses of my childhood were all facade. You know, the cliché of the preening bully who covers up his low self-esteem with belligerence. But studies debunk this. In his groundbreaking 1993 book Bullying at School (based on research begun in 1970), Dan Olweus, a professor of psychology at Norway's University of Bergen, found that children tagged as bullies suffered unusually little anxiety. And research since then has only confirmed his findings.

"The highest self-esteem measured in children is in bullies," says my friend Marshall Duke, a professor of psychology at Emory University. "They're just feeling great!"

Duke says you can look at bullying through the lens of evolutionary psychology. "Bullying could be a vestigial behavior, a throwback to humanity's primitive origins. For example, our evolutionary cousins, the vervet monkeys, won't tolerate a troop member who screws up a verbal warning about an approaching predator. If the mixed-up monkey screams the equivalent of 'Jump out of the trees!' instead of 'Jump into the trees!' after sighting a snake on the forest floor, that monkey is killed." For prehistoric humans, a misfit — a poor spear-handler, a loud talker, a slow runner — may have put the whole tribe at risk. "But this is not the jungle," Duke says, "and this is not eight million years ago, and group survival is not at stake. We live in a civilization that says we need to suppress the primitive reactions we have to people who don't fit in, who can't keep up. Everyone has a right to life and to respect."

But everyone also should expect to encounter teasing — and learn how to deal with it. Kalman says we need to concentrate on the victim's behavior, not the bully's. "People have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear that," he admits. "They say I'm blaming the victims. I'm not blaming the victims, but I am saying they are the ones who have the problem. Bullies aren't the ones committing suicide and shooting up schools."

For me, the headline news is that a misfit's differences — like obesity, red hair, an accent, or plastic turquoise cat's-eye glasses — are not as important a factor in becoming a victim as kids and parents think. The victims, Olweus found, were no more different than a control group of boys who were not bullied.

Funny, I've always assumed that I was bullied because of my hair/figure/braces/name, or any combination thereof.

I was wrong.

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