The new school year is underway and with keeping on top of homework, sporting events, and after school activities, preventing bullying behavior may not be at the front of the priority list for parents. Yet, just as teachers define expectations and classroom rules from Day One, parents should also set behavior expectations with their children and define the character traits they want to instill in them.
Last October, the prestigious Josephson Institute Character Counts! Program published the largest study ever undertaken on the attitudes and conduct of high school students, surveying 43,321 students. They found that 50 percent of students admitted they bullied someone in the past year and 47 percent said they were bullied, teased, or taunted in a way that upset them. The same study found that 1 in 4 students did not feel very safe at school, and more than 50 percent admitted hitting a person in the past year because they were angry.
Michael Josephson, founder and president of the institute, said that “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never harm me is just not true in today’s society.” According to Josephson, “Insults, name calling, relentless teasing, and malicious gossip often inflict deep and enduring pain.”
So deep, in fact, that some teens commit suicide. Just this week, Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old gay high school student, committed suicide, prompting outrage among people across the nation and motivating his idol, Lady Gaga, to campaign via Twitter that bullying be made a hate crime. Jamey was gay and had been bullied since middle school, according to his parents.
So, what is bully behavior? According to Stop Bullying—a government sponsored clearinghouse for students, parents, and teachers—bullying is not just messing around. Bullying can cause serious and lasting harm. It involves:
- An imbalance of power—people use their power to control and harm.
- An intent to cause harm—actions are not accidental but intentional.
- Repetition—it happens over a period of time, not just once.
The bully behavior can be:
- Verbal—teasing others or calling them names.
- Social—spreading rumors, purposely excluding people, etc.
- Physical—hitting, punching, hair-pulling, etc.
- Cyberbullying—using the Internet or cell phones to harm others.
What can parents do to protect their children? There are two dimensions to this question; parents have children that can become victims of bully behavior, but they also have children that can exhibit bully behaviors. Character development programs seem to be a way to prevent children from becoming both victims and perpetrators.
When psychologists and parent educators talk to parents, unequivocally they say that they teach by example. When they see disciplinary incidents and truancy perpetrated by school age children, parents are in disbelief and remark: That is not the example we set for them at home! Perhaps we all need a reality check and to recognize that while teaching by example is important, it is not enough; we need a proactive approach to character education.
“We need to repeat over and over again to our children what we believe in. Talking to them just once about what it is right is not enough,” says Celia Maires, a mother of a recent high school graduate in Houston. “We also need to tell them as often as we can that we love them. As parents we need to be aware of what is going on with our children, including the type of friendships they have.”
FAMILY TALKS MATTER
Hedda McAllister, a retired parent educator, says parents can practice la tertulia familiar, a family gathering to talk about family values and the parents’ expectations and aspirations for their children. “But most importantly,” she adds, “it is a time for parents to listen to their children and hear their interests and opinions.”
McAllister’s assertion is supported by research done by school-based character development programs, such as the Character Counts! and the University of Illinois Extension Department Character Development programs. In simple terms, these programs prescribe setting your family or school values, modelling and practicing those values, and talking about them as often as you can. Defining clear expectations and finding ways to reinforce positive behavior seems to be the most effective means to raising healthy and well-adjusted children.
Some character development programs promote values, such as: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. Other character development programs concentrate on: tolerance, perseverance, friendship, thankfulness, honesty, cooperation, and self control. However, we want to define those family values. The goal is to help children make ethical decisions and to learn to do the right thing as often as possible until it becomes second nature. Perhaps the best legacy we can leave to our children is to teach them how to make sound decisions.
Experts such as Josephson agree that what works in producing lasting effects is building a culture of kindness, instead of targeting the misbehavior. It is similar to implementing the golden rule in behavioral management; instead of telling children what not to do, we need to teach them what to do so they can become virtuous people.
Both Maires and McAllister also say spiritual instruction—regardless of religious affiliation—is important. If the answer to bully behavior is character education, perhaps parents can enhance their children’s character by developing their spirituality as well.
To learn more about specific steps you can take if your child is being bullied or if your child exhibits bully behaviors, take the Character Counts parent survey or visit the government-sponsored Stop Bullying site. Both offer tons of resources.
Alix CaDavid is a community leader, social service professional, and a dynamic trainer. She holds a BA in Political Social Work and has a masters level education in Psychology and Leadership. Alix’s professional career has been in family education and professional development of educators, social services professionals, and community leaders. As an advocate of social justice causes she has trained immigrants to be full participants in their communities and participated in campaigns to improve the well being of families and children.