Bullying and Discipline

I read an article today that a town in Wisconsin is going to attempt to reduce the number of bullying incidences by imposing fines on the parents of reported bullies. According the article, parents will be fined $114 within 90 days following a written notice about their child’s bullying; the fine will increase to $177 for each repeated instance of bullying within a year of the first violation. The goal is that once the parents are fined, they will discipline their bullying child, which will then stop the bullying.

Of course, bullying is wrong and needs to stop at all levels. However, I doubt this approach will work for three key reasons: 1) It is putting the responsibility not to bully on the wrong party—on the parents; 2) It is using imposed punishment on the parents; and 3) Since the goal is that the parents will then discipline the children, it’s encouraging the parents to use imposed punishments as well.

Imposed punishments—whether done to a child or an adult—may prompt temporary compliance, but they seldom change behavior. And in fact, imposed punishments can promote a vicious cycle. In this case, aggressive behavior (bullying) brings on punishment. The bully is mad that he or she got punished (grounded, privileges taken away, yelled at by parents, lectured to, or even spanked) , which then promotes more aggressive behavior, bringing on more punishments, and so on.

Remember, children learn from models; they are great imitators. They learn by watching what their parents do. When punishments are inflicted on young people, they learn some things that perhaps parents may not intend their offspring to learn, such as, “Might makes right,” “Using coercion and violence on others is legitimate,” and “Physical force is acceptable to resolve problems.”

A better approach is to empower all students (bullies and victims) to understand what bullying really is. Here’s an example of how to do that.  

Use a ruler to demonstrate a teeter-totter (see-saw). Hold it flat and describe that this is how it looks when it is balanced. People who are getting along and making responsible choices keep the teeter-totter in balance.

However, when one person starts to pick on or bully someone, the teeter-totter gets out of balance. The person who is picked on usually starts to feel “lower” than the other person. This is a normal reaction. However, if you reflect on the motivation, it is the bully who initially feels bad because of a desire for attention or for power. Otherwise, there would be no reason to bully.

So, it is the bully who is the first one to feel inferior. The bullying behavior is actually an attempt to pull the other kid down to the bully’s level—to try to bring things back into balance from the bully’s perspective. 

The discussion also opens the eyes of the bully. No one wants to be known as someone who has problems. These students usually have never thought about their own behavior in this way.

A more complete explanation to reduce bullying is in Chapter 4 of Parenting Without Stress.