While watching the movie “Bully,” I was deeply saddened by the vivid stories about the suffering, despair, and everlasting grief caused by bullying.
The filmmakers have made an outstanding tool for building awareness and motivating people to feel that bullying is unacceptable. This intimate look into the lives of families devastated by the loss of kids who have taken their lives after being bullied, the struggles of kids dealing with bullying, and the frustration of their parents, is profoundly moving.
The lives of the people whose stories are shown will never be the same.
The important question now is: How can we use the greatly increased awareness and motivation that watching the film generates to make a lasting difference?
Because, watching alone is NOT enough.
I would recommend that the documentary, “Bully”:
- Be watched by parents, teachers, and other adults to raise their own awareness and motivation to take positive action to stop bullying;
- Only be viewed by older children and teens together with their adults, providing context and support; and
- Be immediately followed up after viewing by families, schools, and youth groups with individual and group time to give kids opportunities to discuss what is going on in their own lives and to rehearse skills that can prevent and stop bullying in a safe and supportive environment.
Here are five key points explaining my reasons for these recommendations and for adults to keep in mind in making decisions about how to incorporate the movie into their anti-bullying efforts.
1) Just showing “Bully” to kids is not enough.
The people who most need to watch “Bully” are adults. Children and teens will be most likely to follow through on anti-bullying activities if they see that their adults care enough to watch the movie with them and feel personally responsible for their safety. Positive and sustained change will only be possible when all adults in charge of kids become aware and motivated enough to endure the discomfort required to take effective action to stop bullying and help kids learn how to engage in positive, healthy relationships.
Then, as part of an overall bullying prevention action initiative, having middle school and high school students watch this movie along with their parents and teachers could help raise awareness and build understanding. However, because vulnerable children might copy the suicides in the movie, the movie should only be shown to kids in a context that includes adults clearly stating, “If you feel like hurting yourself or others, or know of someone who does, this is an emergency. Here are people you can go to for help!” In this context, it is also possible that watching the movie might help prevent suicides by showing children feel that they are not alone and that they should get help.
2) Thinking, Wanting, Worrying, and Talking are Not Enough.
Thinking about bullying, wanting a change, worrying about kids, and talking about bullying can become all-consuming activities that take time and energy. Thinking, wanting, worrying, and talking can even feel like action, but action requires that people find and use solutions that lead to positive change.
Taking action to address bullying in the moment, when unkind or unsafe behavior is happening between kids or adults can be uncomfortable for most people. This discomfort can bring positive change to a halt if people are not willing or able to push through it to advocate for the person being bullied or to get help from someone who can.
As the “Bully“ movie vividly portrays, what many kids are facing every day is exponentially worse than discomfort. If we, as adults, do not push through our own discomfort and make significant changes, the price will continue to be paid by our children. They will not “figure it out themselves”, and they will not “get tough enough to deal with it.” Thousands are paying the price today in physical and emotional injury, anxiety, depression, dysfunctional relationships, self-mutilation, and/or suicide.
3) Seeking solutions is more effective than assigning blame.
The examples in the movie of school officials who don’t fix the problem make it tempting to point fingers. An obvious target would be the administrator featured so prominently in the film, an obviously caring woman who allowed her struggles to address bullying to be filmed for the world to see.
Early in the movie, this administrator is shown walking through the empty halls of the middle school as the kids go to class, murmuring that she doesn’t know what to do.
Later, instead of understanding that a boy is still being bullied, she coerces him to shake hands with another boy who had shoved his head in a toilet. She tells him that, by not accepting this boy’s apology, he is being a bully himself.
After seeing the videotapes of a boy being brutalized on the bus, she tells his upset mother, “I’ve ridden that bus. These kids are as good as gold.”
We can wish that this administrator had better knowledge about what to do, but she is no different than many well-intentioned adults. Lots of people who care about kids don’t know how to handle conflict, how to speak up in the face of authority, how to set boundaries, or how to talk to upset children and parents. They find themselves either frozen in inaction or repeatedly trying the same solution over and over, even though it’s making things worse.
We can also blame the bus driver who doesn’t seem to notice the cruelty taking place behind her. But what kind of support does she have for pulling the bus over and insisting that her passengers behave? Does she have the authority to demand that students who are harmful to others not be allowed to ride the bus?
While pointing fingers is easy and can feel satisfying, let’s try to view these people with compassion. Getting stuck in inaction or ineffective action because one doesn’t know what to do could happen to any of us. Demanding “bully-free no-tolerance zones” is not going to work as well as figuring out why people are stuck and providing tools and support for them to take charge effectively.
4) Not Everyone Agrees That Bullying Is Bad.
Too often, no matter what kinds of anti-bullying initiatives are being used, widespread sustained support is lacking, partly because beliefs on the issue vary widely. The challenges in getting an entire school community to agree that bullying is destructive are shown by the comments of Tom, who called in to Harvey Winstein’s April 16th interview with Neil Conan on NPR.
In the transcript, Tom is quoted as saying, “OK. I think it’s all ridiculous, to be honest, really, because I think we need bullying. I know I’m going to get a lot of people who’ll disagree with what I’m going to say, but I think we need bullying to build character and build a backbone. … Don’t sit there and whine because they [your kids] come to you and then you’re going to fix the boo-boo. You teach them to be independent. You teach them to stand up for themselves. You teach them to fight back. …Quit whining about it. You know, for example, the woman who lost her son. I am so sorry to hear that. I had a friend who lost their son, as well, to bullying, however, that friend who lost his son, his son, in my opinion, was weak. How are you going to sit there and let someone bullying caused you to kill yourself? It is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen.”
As upsetting as Tom’s beliefs are to most of us, we have to accept that he is not alone in his perspective. He represents a vocal minority who will object to measures being taken to stop bullying. People who want bullying to stop need to be prepared to set boundaries about unsafe behavior and to persist in the face of this kind of opposition.
5) People Need Skills to Address Bullying In the Moment.
Just like a stool needs at least three legs to be stable, so does change in human behavior. Dan Heath describes these three strategies in his exceptional book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard: “Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant, and Shape the Path.” The Rider is our intellectual mind. The Elephant is our emotional being. And the Path is what defines how we can get where we need to go.
In the case of bullying, the “Rider” requires awareness so that people understand how big the problem is and what it looks like, the “Elephant” requires motivation so most people will feel strongly that bullying is destructive, and the “Path” requires skills so that people will know what to do to intervene in the moment, persist in the face of resistance, make valid assessments, and provide support to others speaking up, even when all of these actions are uncomfortable. Awareness, motivation, and skills are all necessary for bullying to become addressed consistently, effectively, and practically.
The chapter on “Building a Foundation of Emotional Safety for Young People” in our new Kidpower Book for Caring Adults describes how to help children develop healthy beliefs about their power, value, and competence.
Coming Wednesday: 5 Actions Adults Can Take NOW to Protect Kids From Bullying
Also see Monday’s post: Watching “Bully”: Why I Wouldn’t Be a Good Film Maker
— Irene van der Zande is the Executive Director and Founder of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International and author of the just-released Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, which has a foreword by Gavin de Becker, best-selling author of The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift and puts Kidpower’s 23+ years of expertise at your fingertips. Her book, Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, is used by many families, schools, and youth organizations in implementing their own anti-bullying programs.
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