This is a post about our failure to tackle bullying. We are locked in an ongoing story, predictably and painfully continuing to blame victims, and normalise anti-social behaviour, often through exclusion. I want to move towards a positive narrative, especially in schools; and share a few useful sources of support for those who want to ‘flip the script’, and move from being bystanders to being upstanders.
The quotes in bold in this post are from parents sharing experiences to help each other with bullying and are included, in full, at the end of the post. Like these parents, I only have my experiences to guide my views and cannot claim any expertise – so feel free to ignore or dismiss any assertions herein.
“Whilst being wrong, unfortunately bullying exists throughout life.”
Most of us believe that bullying is a fact of a life; one that most kids will experience. You’d probably never say this out loud at work, especially if you’ve recently had safeguarding training! However, when teachers talk in the staffroom, or parents huddle under umbrellas in the playground; there is a sad shake of the head and a sigh that goes with the admission that ‘It’s inevitable – but it will prepare kids for adult life’.
This is the problem. Bullying, or rather the state of being bullied, leads the victim to feel powerless, degraded and doomed to remain in a situation that has no escape doors; and which everyone around them seems to accept.
Those teachers in the staffroom are failing the kids in their classes who are being broken by bullying, and those parents in the playground are turning away from the responsibility to help their offspring be good citizens and know how to develop positive relationships.
We tell kids to go and talk to a teacher; or employees to go to HR: and explain what they have seen or what is happening to them. Which is often nearly impossible, right? Schools and employers wait for an employee, child or a parent to come and report ‘bullying’. It is only then that a bullying policy would be activated. So, it is up to the victims to say that the environment is not as protective as it might seem.
I think it is this ‘fixed mindset’ that perpetuates bullying. Though it is partly caused by the depersonalisation of care – as we attempt to systematise all our societal problems, it is this poisonous belief that we all deserve bullying in our lives that makes it so hard to remove .
As a meme, bullying has embedded itself as a hidden sickness within the body of our institutions and society. We tell ourselves bullying is inevitable because we carry the virus inside us: transmitting the tacit acceptance of bullying to the next generation.
Flipping the script is hard, and takes effort, trust and some cooperation. Firstly, we should be good bystanders. Anyone can stop bullying. No policy or complex intervention is required. We should expect anyone; child or adult – at school or the workplace, to be ethical and caring, and say “No! That is not ok. I will not stand by. Please stop this now.” This simple video sums this up pretty well.
We should more directly praise ‘pro-social’ behaviour and let those who feel bullied know, from the get go, that it is a failure of the environment – not the people in it.
That means not claiming that your organisation has no, or very little, bullying. Yes, Ofsted, and employment tribunals will be confused by your honesty – but they are also likely to impressed by your commitment to depriving bullying of the oxygen of deceit that it needs
“My advice would be avoid the use of the word bullying if at all possible as it is a very inflammatory term.”
Even as you try to report bullying you run up against the first of many challenges. We know this is a label that we can use – but are too often afraid to use it. We are afraid of the power of this simple term and the admission it points to: that we are largely failing ourselves and our children.
Labels are painful and often unhelpful. Bullies are often victims too and people can feel bullied without there being a bully/bullies. We are so often searching for the simple binary dynamic of aggressor and victim that we miss the more complex problems that really corrode character and resilience.
We should be focused on the environment and the values of the people in that place. So what can you do to make a more healthy environment?
Make a clear statement of inclusion. All the time. Every day. Invite openness – bring conflict out of the shadows, and manage your people, yourself and your spaces – to ensure that no one feels damaged by their place of work or learning.
Society is held together by bonds between people. If you don’t actively make bonds stick, and actively create a caring environment where exclusion (selection) is part of the norm, you are (de facto) being anti-social. This is true of workplaces, classrooms, and whole systems (see the debate over Grammars/Independent schools).
I believe that in schools, we become complicit with the ‘looking away, and that children believe that bullying is something that they have to accept and that their weaknesses are real and are something to be on constant guard for.
Of course, some find alternative remedies and thrive – yet others stay fractured; either perpetuating the problem or turning in on themselves and self-harming.
Bullying is not just about disruptive or visible abuse. All too often, schools and workplaces focus on the bullying that impacts others apart from the victim. To reach for a lazy stereotype, teachers will arrange classes so that boys stop fighting, but are happy to leave the girls because however much pain they might be causing one of their number through exclusion and subtle cruelty, it is rarely disruptive to learning.
Finally, I have ‘skin in the game’. I was bullied from nine till fifteen years old. It shaped me, creating social callouses where the daily abuse rubbed away at my trust – and leaving fractures in my confidence, protected by habits of self-deprecation and avoidance. My recent brush with depression quickly uncovered the painful scars hidden beneath. After thirty years, I am shocked to find that despite all the increased knowledge and work to reduce bullying, I am seeing children being broken in the same way that I was.
We all deserve better. So, let’s do better.
There is, of course, wonderful help and great advice out there – but I really liked what I found here:
Parental quotes – Thanks to those who gave permission for me to use their words.
“… bottom line: if it doesn’t work change schools. From the experiences of friends with girls this kind of toxic queen bee shit is very difficult to stop simply because the “rewards” for the queen and her acolytes are so great”
“My M suffered with ‘queen bee’ rubbish in primary. I talked to one of the parents and although she reacted appropriately it didn’t change in the long run. This issue whilst being wrong unfortunately exists throughout life. My tactic was to empower M to have the resilience to cope. It took time. Now there are new queen bees and she seems to be able to see them for what they are And get on with things.”
“We went through this with E. She was on the receiving end for a while, and we did deal with it via the school. Not always satisfactory and ultimately ended up with girl being removed by her parents”
“I think almost anyone can become a bully, and conversely almost anyone can be bullied, so it is not anything ‘wrong’ with the bullied person, just the circumstances, mix of children, etc. Therefore once bullied, NOT always bullied thereafter. We’ve done talking plus giving them some tools for their toolbox when the bullying occasions arise. Including a bit of humour (eg “if all else fails, deck ’em!”, which they know is a joke but lightens things…)”
“I was bullied by girls. Solidarity (not sympathy) is what is needed. (It was the 70s, no one dealt with it properly, sorry no suggestions of what to do right)”
“Try and make sure that they continue to confide in you, and doesn’t try to deal with it alone. It’s probably not the right message, but when it was one of ours, after months of dealing with the school, standing up to the bully was the only thing that worked. Not being afraid to not tolerate their behaviour. And maybe sympathy isn’t such a bad thing: knowing that others widely recognises that the behaviour is awful, having support, is understanding not pity, & stops that feeling that you are in some way to blame.”