Taking the Power out of Power: "The Bullying Stops Here"

Kids need the power to have an impact and to be heard, respected and heeded. At the same time they need to know that we will protect them, all of them -- even the bullies -- from the power games of children, from the dramas that can last a lifetime.
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If we make headway in protecting our kids from bullying tactics in and outside our schools, we will go a long way to changing our culture of winning temporary status despite the costs. And we just may have a chance to use our power wisely, enough so we begin to "take the power out of power." I shall explain.

On Anderson Cooper's show last night, 360, on CNN, the program was entitled "The Bullying Stops Here." It was a surprisingly good show, in that it presented filmed interviews and evidence of bullying in action, as well as representing kids and grownups. With one exception -- the parents of bullies -- who may have a more difficult time in coming forward to begin with. The program got to my own heart strings and no doubt those of many viewers -- heart strings which are often responsible for our opinions in any case. It fired up the adrenalin that made, I think many of us, want to say "Let it Stop."

Phil McGraw was most adamant in his insistence that we hold parents responsible for their children in addition to providing education to our educators and supporting staff in schools. The others were less optimistic about influencing parents and advocated concentrating on the schools. Both arenas are inter-connected since even as focusing on schools may be a crucial beginning, there will be a direct or indirect line of communication to parents that will be coming home in kids' back packs, their home work assignments, and hopefully their attitudes.

So I wonder about a few things: how to help parents who may be lost in shame and harsh inner judgments in a way that isn't humiliating? How to help the bullies who may be under fire at home or within or so deeply insecure that their only outlet is to do unto others as was done to them or so they feel? How to help them with their loyalty conflicts if there is violence in their homes? I also worry that our anger, provoked by the mistreatment of children which for too long we have overlooked, may emerge ready to strike down both those who bully and their parents who we see as responsible for their child's behavior.

I relate to the matter of parents in a few distinct ways. Firstly as someone who believes that our shadows can overwhelm us if we don't get to know them, in a society where we act out violence through our entertainment and our politics, we may resist coming to know that violence (inside us) and be alarmed and punitive when our kids shame us by being the aggressor in open daylight. We may simply panic because as parents we don't have the power all the time that others seem to think we should. And we may crumble or further wall off under the influence of the horrendous blow of judgment that gets heaped on the parent of the newly shunned criminal-- the child gone astray.

Coming together as parents of bullies and of victims and as human beings with a great deal in common, would be the best thing we could offer, and might even interrupt the violence in our political climate (or am I asking for too much?).

In the meantime there is some information we can offer both the parents of bullies and the parents of victims. Aside from the terrible trauma and potential numbness to emotion we saw filmed on the show, the danger is that children become adults who get both habituated and then stuck in the aftermath emotions of each role. The bully that is lost in youth can give up on being anything else, or confirmed in his/her power to "get over" on others so that becomes a life vocation so to speak. On the other hand, victimization at its worst can lead to righteous revenge that continues the cycle of violence along with the sense of justification for violence. Our current worry about terrorists shows that many who get to that point, have come from positions of having endured extensive cruelty or identifying with those who have.

Power alone, over children, can lead to a lust for violence in our children. The parents of bullies need to know that violent punishment and threats of abandonment along with shaming, yield passive obedience at all costs. In addition they transform into a turn-on to violence -- just as often against parents and other loved ones. The parents of victims need to know we need to claim the power to halt the violence but need to stop there: we desperately need the awareness -- the humility -- that we all have the capacities for violence at times as we do for fear and vulnerability, for the most beautiful and the basest of emotions.

I say let's start on all levels, and claim our right and responsibility to teach dignity and emotional literacy in our schools, with the same effort we put into the parts of curriculum which we have decided count more. Let's start in various communities, including the poorer ones that have known bullying and abandonment for too long.

Kids need, for a healthy hope in participation, the power to have an impact and to be heard, respected and heeded. At the same time they need to know that we will protect them, all of them -- even the bullies -- from the power games of children, from the dramas that can last a lifetime. In a culture of relationship and mutuality, the power comes from our willingness to tell all of our children they are safe under our watch. This means we have to invent ways of coping, of teaching, of being available not only to children but to all whom assist our kids. As we remember that parents were kids just a little bit ago, and many are painfully alone in a quagmire that needs attention. While our kids are watching, they need to see our own resilience in recuperating from mistakes and from conflict -- our modeling for them instead of just preaching to them.

As for those parents and administrators who scorn this approach that protects kids and parents from violence, let us resist the temptation to beat them up -- although we may feel like it. If the urges for revenge last, they will only hold us back and distract us, and of course they may turn us into what we are fighting. We can stop them from stopping us, while we offer them the shift away from their own imprisonment, and continue on the path of interrupting the violence we are too often taking for granted.