Monday, March 11, 2013

From Anti-Bully to Pro-Mentor: Three Ways To Be Proactive About Bullying

Photo Credit: nist6ss (Creative Commons)
A few weeks ago, we celebrated Anti-Bullying Day, aka Pink Shirt Day, here in British Columbia. The movement began in Nova Scotia by two young men who decided to stand up for a grade 9 victim who was bullied for wearing a pink shirt. Since then, the anti-bullying protest has grown, with students and teachers wearing pink shirts for one day in February to stand up against bullying. I love that this is a movement started by high school students to combat an injustice they saw happening in front of them.

Allow me to ask a question: what does wearing a pink shirt really solve?

It's an honest question. A few weeks after Pink Shirt day, do we have less victims of bullying? Is there more justice and peace-making in our schools? The solutions I've found range from the obvious ("tell an adult") to the overly-passive and weak ("avoid areas where bullies prey," which simply doesn't work when you have a particular class with a bully). A recent opinion article in the Province made the case that while good intentioned, anti-bullying efforts might not be working:
Is Pink Shirt Day doing more harm than good when it comes to battling bullying? 
Well, high-profile New York school psychologist Izzy Kalman says it is — despite its good intentions. 
That’s because Pink Shirt Day and other faddish, anti-bullying initiatives promote “victim thinking” that weakens children, reducing their resiliency and restricting their ability to neutralize bullying. 
“We’re teaching children that nobody’s allowed to do anything to them that they don’t like,” Kalman told me Tuesday. “The only place where everybody’s always nice to each other is heaven.”
I don't think anti-bullying efforts are doing more harm than good, and I don't quite agree with the psychologist's theology (particularly the almost Christian notion equating being nice to being in heaven) but I think the question is fair: is this really helping? Are we seeing less children and teens being bullied since British Columbia's first official Pink Shirt Day in 2008?

Perhaps my unease about such a movement centers around its negative tenor. It isn't pro- something. Instead of being anti-drugs, let's be pro-health. Instead of being anti-war, let's be pro-peace. We've recognized that it's not enough to simply quit our poor habits; we have to start new healthy ones, replacing the bad with good. Repentance requires more than simply saying "I'm sorry" to those who have been harmed. It is a whole 180 degree turnaround, a paradigm shift of the heart and soul that affects lifestyle choices. To repent from a culture of bullying, we need to actively replace it with something else. We also need to recognize the systemic causes instead of putting pink-colored bandaids on the wounds.

The documentary Bully took an in-depth look at the lives of the victims and the systemic problems with schools and discipline that often lead to the perpetuation of bullying. While it offer a sympathetic portrait of bullying victims, it only looked at a tiny piece of the problem. There was a lack of research into cultural and systemic causes and implications for bullying. I watched Bully to have a deeper understanding of the problem in order to find tangible solutions, and came up wanting. It was more like an advocacy film that fosters emotional connections to the problem of bullying rather than offering comprehensive information or practical application. Sadly, many of the supporters and followers of anti-bullying campaigns could follow this example, feeling like they've solved the problem by simply becoming more aware of it.

In the fascinating film Mean Creek (one of my top youth ministry movies), a cadre of young friends invite a bully on a boating trip down a river, intending revenge. While the bully is crass and socially inept, one cannot help but feel compassion as his story is slowly revealed over the course of the journey. The victims are hurting and lonely, but so is this young man. His only means of attention and feeling a sense of strength is through hurting others. The saying is true: hurt people hurt people. The abused only knows how to abuse. He is just looking for a friend, not realizing the roles have reversed and he will soon become the victim.

Bullies are human beings too, children and young people that are hurting and alone. They too need grace and guidance and compassion. They need mentors and advocates and adoptive parents to come alongside them as guides and friends.

I want to be less about anti-bullying and more about pro-mentoring




Here are three ways to begin a pro-mentoring movement:

1. Become a mentor. Here are some recent American stats about the effects of a fatherless generation in the American culture:
  • 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (US Dept. Of Health/Census) – 5 times the average.
  • 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes – 32 times the average.
  • 85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average.  (Center for Disease Control)
  • 80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes –14 times the average.  (Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26)
  • 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average.  (National Principals Association Report)
These are young people who don't have caring adults to guide them through life. If loving adults would volunteer the time to partner with schools and mentoring organizations like The Mentoring Project to simply spend an hour a week intentionally caring about and loving the broken young men and women--both bullies and victims--in our culture, I wonder what the systemic effects would be. Maybe anti-bullying movements would no longer be needed. (The B.C. Ministry of Education anti-bullying website suggests mentoring as a strategy to stop bullying)

2. Train adults about healthy proactive solutions. The sad part about the "go tell an adult" advice often given to bullying victims is this: many adults simply don't know what to do. They listen to the victims' plight and offer a sympathetic ear, but often are paralyzed and unsure about a response. This might be due to their own insecurities, not feeling like they have the authority to intervene or make a difference. Or it could be from a jaded and cynical mindset that has developed over years of seeing and experiencing the frustrating issues that come with raising children and teens. Perhaps they were bullied themselves and fear reliving the trauma of their youth. Teachers, school administrators, coaches, and others in the social services/education realm need practical, applicable wisdom for how to handle bullying scenarios as they arise. Both parents of victims and bullies also need practical parenting wisdom on how to carefully walk the line between the dualistic helicopter-parent and hands-off mentalities that are so frequent in our culture. We must also learn about cyberbullying and other social media issues, as this is where much of the bullying is taking place (My friends Adam and Marko wrote a fantastic book about this).

3. See the image of God in others. Pastor and parents: we must teach the doctrine of the imago dei to our children and teens. Young people need to see themselves as works of art uniquely created in the image of God, created by love and for love, to give and receive it. But it's not enough to see one's own value and dignity; young people must begin to see the people around them as image bearers too. The victim is a child of God, beloved and sacred. The bully is a child of God, beloved and sacred. When we walk the halls of the neighborhood high school or see crowds of teens in the grocery store or mall or coffee shop, we need to see the beautiful image of God, not a nuisance or a problem.

Anti-bullying movements are great, but let's take it one proactive step further. I'm pro-mentoring. Want to join me?

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