It’s dinner time, but gathered in an economics classroom at Dulwich College Beijing (DCB) are dozens of mothers – and one father – who have forgone their evening meal to listen to a man named Robert Pereira. Pereira is an education expert who has spent the last 20 years as a professional consultant training students, teachers, and parents around the world to deal with bullying. He’s worked with 160,000 students and asked them why they bully each other, and the answers might surprise you.
Author of Why We Bully, Pereira is from Australia and came to Beijing this school year for training sessions at DCB and the Western Academy of Beijing. At a parent seminar on why children bully, he spoke with beijingkids further about dealing with this most intricate and complex of problems.
A Universal Problem
Bullying happens in every environment, from the richest schools to the poorest, from rural schools in Australia to international schools in Beijing. Whether co-ed, single-sex, private or public, all schools face these issues. “Bullying is a universal problem,” says Pereira. “If a school claims not to have incidents of bullying, they’re either in denial or ignorant as to what bullying is.”
Bullying, as defined by Pereira, is “repeated behavior that is harmful and involves the misuse of power by an individual or group towards one or more persons.” Bullying is not restricted to force or violence; it can involve humiliation, domination, intimidation, victimization, and all types of harassment.
But where is the line between teasing and bullying? Pereira doesn’t think there is a line: “Teasing is a big dimension of boy world. Bullying is not just physical. It’s psychological. It’s emotional turmoil.”
One of the biggest modern contributors to bullying is the baron of social media: Facebook. “When it comes to kids, [Facebook is] bad news,” Pereira proclaims. While it used to be that kids would escape bullies when the school day ended, now they receive messages after school hours like, “No one likes you” or “Why don’t you eat lots, get fat, become anorexic, and die?” via text or Facebook messaging.
Think your kid is being bullied? It could be the other way around. “That bully could be your daughter,” says Pereira. “Are you open to the fact that your daughter may be the bully? Girls lie. The worst mistake you’ll make is to say ‘My daughter would never lie.’” In order to deal with the larger bullying problem, parents must accept that their child may not be the victim, but the perpetrator.
Pereira clarifies that a child’s bullying behavior most likely has little to do with bad parenting. “Your daughter is a separate person and there’s something going on inside her that we need to understand,” he says. So how is a parent to help?
Why Girls Bully
When Pereira works with students, he works with girls and boys separately because they bully each other in different ways. When girls bully each other, they are generally covert and subtle. Pereira explains: “It’s all done with the eyes [with what I call]the hate stare. If your daughter was the recipient of a hate stare, she knows something’s wrong. She can get that hate stare on day one of school.”
Why do girls bully each other? “It’s envy,” says Pereira. “Bitter or longing contemplation of a person’s better fortune or qualities.” It shouldn’t be a surprise that what girls envy most is almost entirely about looks. When Pereira asks girls why hypothetical Amanda would bully Alice, he gets the same responses: “Because Alice is prettier” or “Because she’s ugly.”
Girls go on to tell him the characteristics that incite envy, which are often very specific and subjective: hair, skin, clothing, accessories, and breasts. It can even extend to seemingly banal details, like “Her parents are still together,” “She has prettier hair clips,” or “Her mother is caring and kind.” Rarely are girls envious of another girl’s intelligence.
Bullying ensues when this envy gets out of control and is coupled with warped thinking. For example, Amanda may think Alice is prettier, and fears Alice is going to be more popular, or that she’ll steal all of Amanda’s friends, and Amanda thinks, “Alice is so lucky. Her life is perfect. Well, I hate her.” Pereira offered his students an example of a new girl at school who happens to be very pretty. What would the girls at that school do? One girl answered, “Ask her to be part of the group, so you can see her beauty all the time, or hate her and make sure she knows it.”
While the list of what triggers girl bullying can sound ridiculous, the consequences are real and chilling. Like many aspects of parenting, conversation is a crucial component to helping your daughter through the female social quagmire. Now that you know the reasons that girls engage in these behaviors, you can think about their more specific needs. De-emphasizing the importance of looks and refraining from comparison with one’s self or with other women is a good place to start. But just like almost every other aspect of parenting, it’s important to talk to your daughters.
Why Boys Bully
Unsurprisingly, boy bullying is a different beast. Where girls are covert and complicated, boys are much more straightforward. The number one reason your son might be bullied? Because he’s different. Unlike girls, this often has to do with a boy being intelligent; if a boy gets good grades, is interested in chess or debate club over sports, or plays the “wrong” sports, has musical ability, or is of a different size or different appearance, those are all things that make him what boys call “an easy target.”
Most of boy bullying is teasing and revolves around one word: gay. Do your boys throw around phrases like “That’s gay”? Many parents think, “My boys don’t mean it like that. They don’t have a problem with gay people, it’s just something they say. They wouldn’t say it to a boy who was actually gay.” However, we can’t rationalize it away because we think our sons don’t mean it. Those are teasing words, words that will stop a boy from pursuing his talent or being comfortable with himself.
If you hear your child using the word “gay” with negative connotations, Pereira advises having a conversation and immediately explaining why it’s not OK to say that. It’s not about shaming your son; it’s about assisting him to empathize with a victim and helping him to think more rationally.
Not all bullying revolves around the word “gay,” but no matter the form it takes, don’t brush it off as “just teasing” or “boys will be boys.” Teasing can have a huge psychological impact; Pereira cites a number of boys who were bullied for their talents in playing an instrument. The bullying got so bad that the boys stopped playing altogether, and felt the psychological effects of being bullied well into their 70s. Pereira even links merciless teasing to violence at schools. A boy who is constantly bullied could be thinking, “The next person who says that to me, I’m going to let him have it.” And he could mean it.
The exercises Pereira does with students can be easily adapted to a talk with your kids. Ask them to identify the reasons why Amanda might bully Alice. After the list is complete, ask the follow up question: What does Amanda need to realize? Answers range from “What you’re thinking isn’t necessarily true” to “Everyone is different” and “Don’t compare yourself to others.” This helps kids empathize with the victim and reinforce or introduce a more cogent thought process.
The Effects of Bullying
When bullying happens, children can feel anxious, fearful and wary throughout the school day. If a kid is being teased about his high test scores, his parents may notice that he’ll start bringing home lower scores in the hopes that bullies won’t pick on him anymore. Your child may become morose or depressed, experience loss of appetite, or stop attending school. When it gets extreme, kids will contemplate suicide. Pereira emphasizes that suicide is rare, but it’s important to pay attention to your kids, because they will be very depressed before they take such drastic measures.
It is not infrequent that children who are experiencing the terrible psychological effects of being bullied will never tell their parents what’s going on. That’s why establishing an open, non-judgmental dialogue with your kids from the very beginning is so vital; you can’t intervene if you don’t know it’s happening.
Whether your child is bullying or being bullied, parents must step in. However, if your child is being bullied, one of the worst things you can do is to go directly to the parents of the child who is bullying. “Go through the school,” says Pereira. “Even if you think you can handle it, this will come as a huge surprise to the parents of the perpetrator. They will go into denial, and then you, as the parent of the victim, will go ballistic.” There’s a good chance there will be a violent outburst if the situation gets inflamed. Taking the matter to the school ensures a more neutral ground, and the school should intervene.
If you are the parent called into the principal’s office because your child is the perpetrator, it’s important to be open to the fact that your children could be lying to you about their behavior. Parents commonly react in denial, saying, “My child would never do that; I know my child.” The danger of this is that the child doing the bullying will realize they’ve got the best ally they could ever have, and their bullying behavior and lying won’t stop.
When a child is being bullied at school, parents are tempted to tell their child that they just need to fight back. This is a big no-no, as Pereira explains: “Violence begets violence. If your child is going to fight back, what are they going to do? Hit this person in the mouth? Punch him in the eye?” This could lead to accusations of assault, which could progress to court.
Even fighting back with words is difficult. If somehow your child manages to strike the perfect assertive tone and say exactly what needs to be said (which is nearly impossible in the heat of the moment for adults, let alone children), would this make a difference to the bully? The answer, says Pereira, is probably no.
The School as Mediator
The first thing that parents need to do when it comes to bullying is to stop blaming the teachers. Given all of the highly specific and seemingly mundane reasons that kids bully each other, how could a teacher be expected to control that? Parents and the school need to be partners, but Pereira warns, “Once you start blaming the school, the partnership becomes adversarial. Teachers need the help of parents.”
Eliminating bullying at school is not an easy thing, and administrators need help. That’s why schools around the world hire experts like Pereira to train teachers and administrators on why kids bully, how to prevent it, and how to intervene. Parents and schools need to keep in mind that just having an anti-bullying or zero-tolerance policy will not enforce positive behaviors; the only way this can be done is through
conversations between students, parents, teachers, and administrators.
The unfortunate bottom line with bullying is that there is no easy solution. Parents and schools must educate and speak with kids openly and frequently to prevent bullying behaviors. And when bullying does happen, the parents and schools need to acknowledge the problem and intervene swiftly and appropriately.
Why We Bully (AUD 34.95 including international postage)
by Robert Pereira
This article originally appeared on p21-23 of the beijingkids June 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com