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No angels or demons in schoolyard bullying

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When King David Junior School Linksfield principal Ruth Isaacson listens to two children each telling their side of a story that potentially involves bullying, she usually doesn’t find any angels or demons.

“You find that there has been some provocation,” she said on 23 November during her school’s webinar entitled ‘Bully-proofing Your Child by Building Resilience and Grit’. “What we try to do is to remain neutral, listen to both sides of the story, and point out what can be done differently, and what could have been done differently.”

Depending on the severity of the situation, Isaacson tells the children, “I need to have a meeting with you in three days’ time. I want to check to see how the days are going, and whether you have had better days.”

She said giving children accountability changes the dynamic because they won’t bully another child when another meeting is on the horizon.

The webinar focused on equipping children with skills to face bullying. Bullies are present in every life stage, and all children will have to deal with conflict at some point in their lives.

“The idea of this webinar came about because we’re still trying to educate children not to use the term ‘bullying’ loosely,” said Isaacson. “If children understand what bullying is and what it’s not, they can alert their parents and teachers who will help de-escalate the situation and provide preventative tools for future encounters.”

Using the right language is crucial in determining if a behaviour is bullying, agreed Jo Hamilton, an educational psychologist who’s interested in teaching children how to manage conflict situations. She’s written a book, The Ultimate Assertiveness Toolbox for Kids, on the subject.

“A huge difference exists between bullying, and everyday mean, unkind, thoughtless, competitive, nasty behaviour,” said Hamilton. Bullying is distinctive because it’s intentional, repetitive, and creates an actual or perceived imbalance of power, she said.

“An actual imbalance of power is where the person who’s bullying is taller, stronger, older, or has more facilities at their means,” said Hamilton. “In a perceived imbalance of power, as with social power, they seem more powerful.” For example, bullying may give rise to the bullied person thinking, “If I say or do something, [that] will [turn] the whole [class] against me.”

Luke Lamprecht, a child protection and development specialist, believes the idea that the bullied become bullies, and that bullies have poor self-esteem, are both a bit of a myth.

“My experience of the bullies I’ve been sent [to work with] – and these are proper, taunting, harassing bullies – is they have an extremely strong sense of themselves,” he said. “They’re just unable to take the perspective of another, and that for me is the really challenging part to manage.”

Having worked for several years in a girls’ school, Hamilton has seen how girls are often raised to be kind, thoughtful, and caring, but believes they should also be raised to be assertive and respectful to themselves.

Lamprecht’s experience of working mainly with boys and running a boxing gym in Hillbrow has shown him that boys are quite different. “It tends to be quite explosive, immediate, kind of ‘Let’s shake hands afterwards and get on with it.’”

This candidate Master of Science in child health said children, especially boys, are often seen by their peers as weak or a snitch when they seek help. “The idea of becoming a man is somehow performative in the world. You have to perform. You have to see how many times you can be beaten down and stand up again. What we don’t recognise is that if we don’t intervene, both the victim of the bullying and the bully are denied services.”

If parents help their children to take responsibility, they’re giving them tools to become better socialised, said Isaacson. “By not dealing with the situation, they’re actually starting that process of isolating their child,” she said. “We know kids sort each other out. They’ll stay away from a child who is too confident, picks on kids, or feels quite empowered to do so.”

Isaacson and Lamprecht acknowledged the importance of the maternal function of hugging and loving unconditionally, and the paternal function of instilling discipline.

Asked by a parent watching the webinar what to do when a boy is mean to your daughter, Lamprecht responded, “You tell your daughter to inform that boy to never talk to you like that again, because boys don’t talk to girls in mean ways. Boys are kind, and they talk to girls in kind ways, and girls like kind boys.”

Lamprecht said it’s “mad” that girls have to interpret nasty behaviour by boys as a sign that they like them. “We cannot allow that to be perpetuated because the long-term consequences are really dire,” he said. “Parents of boys should tell their boys to not speak to girls in mean ways, and give them a flower if they like them.” He believes children model their behaviour on their parents and a world that’s fraught with competitiveness.

Isaacson said, “Our social workers are also looking at kids being one to two years behind [because of the pandemic]. There’s a lag in social and emotional development. Something to do is maybe have discussions with your kids when there isn’t a crisis. Don’t wait until your kid comes home absolutely distraught. Rather have the discussion about how we should react if somebody provokes us or says something mean.”

She related how she once phoned a parent whose child was reacting badly to some provocation. “The mother said she had told her child to think about what might be happening in the other child’s life that’s making him behave in a way that isn’t so nice. I thought that was quite an exceptional level of parenting. The most important thing is the role-modelling, the kindness, just hearing your child out, and also being sympathetic and empathetic towards not only your own child, but also other people’s children.”

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