Heroism, Spotlight

Crazy Cameron Hamilton Knows a Thing or Two about Heroes

Mayor Cameron Hamilton

Yesterday my friend Ari Kohen spotlighted a California mayor with a terrible message about bullying.

Mayor Cameron Hamilton apparently announced that schoolkids suffering from bullies ought to “grow a pair” and just handle the matter themselves. That’s obviously not a popular approach these days (it’s also an ineffectual approach) so the Mayor took nationwide flak over it, and agreed to sit down for an interview (video here).

And he actually reveals some very interesting views.

In the video, the mayor sticks to his guns that children basically need to handle bullying themselves. He believes anti-bullying programs are unnecessary, which I strongly disagree with. But what’s interesting to me is his reasoning. The mayor offers three concerns:

  1. Kids are not encouraged to handle bullying on their own.
  2. Kids don’t know how to defend themselves physically if need be.
  3. We aren’t teaching kids to look out for each other and speak out when they see bullying.

Some of these actually have merit, and I’ll discuss them below. But his overarching logic is (I quote), “It’s up to you [the kid] and your friends to put a stop to this.” That is a deeply flawed idea.

Even as an adult it isn’t “up to you” alone to resolve violence or threats against you; we have a complex legal system to make sure grownups can get their assailants removed from society, or receive compensation for the damages against them, or both. And for kids we never take an “it’s up to you” approach. It isn’t up to a kid to do their homework without a parent or teacher’s help, and it isn’t up to kids to drive themselves to the hospital if they’re sick. The whole point of caring for kids is helping them do things they don’t know how to do so they can learn to do them right.

That certainly includes dealing with bullies, threats and confrontation, which is why we have anti-bullying policies. And the new policies that feature bully education and safe zones, which Hamilton disapproves of, were developed precisely because the old “don’t let ‘em get you down” approach routinely failed.

So I disagree with Hamilton’s antiquated beliefs about rugged anti-bullying individualism. But in his backwardness, I also think he made some good points.

I think it would be great if more kids were trained in self defense. I was bullied heavily as a kid and learning martial arts helped significantly. That’s not because I went on a rampage and kicked all the bullies’ asses, it’s because martial arts is a powerful way to build confidence in kids. There was probably no activity in my entire childhood that had as much of an impact on my growth as martial arts did. Aside from getting into better physical shape, I felt more comfortable with myself and more able to speak up for myself when someone bullied me. I never actually had to use my training to defend myself physically, because my new positive attitude defrayed most situations and eventually stopped the bullying altogether.

Martial arts may not be right for every kid, but learning to defend yourself does have an effect of making you stronger as a person. I think offering self-defense classes would actually be a great component to a school anti-bullying program. Cameron Hamilton might be able to get behind that.

But the thing that really caught my attention was Hamilton’s third point, that bullying ends when one kid will stand up for another kid they see being bullied. This stood out at me because what he’s talking about is heroism. The most basic act of heroism is when a bystander refuses to stay silent, and takes a stand against something they believe is wrong. Overcoming this “bystander effect” of wanting to keep your head down is central to current hero research… and the anti-bullying programs based on it.

So Hamilton is (rightly) asking kids to be heroes. If they’re willing to do that, they really will end bullying in their schools faster than any safe zone, counseling program or demerit system. The problem is that being heroic goes against our instincts. When we see someone abusing someone else, we have a desperate urge not to get involved. Being the first one to step forward and say something is terrifying.

So you can’t just tell kids, “make sure to stand up for each other.” That advice doesn’t work. It’s like saying, “don’t eat sugar.” The only way to get kids to bravely stand up for each other—a tactic that really does work—is to to teach them how to do that confidently and safely.

And teaching that to kids is the centerpiece of today’s best anti-bullying programs, like the Hero Construction Company run by Matt Langdon. Principals have reported not only a total reversal in bullying after Matt’s program, but also better performance in other areas and students wanting to start school programs and volunteer projects. The bullying stops because kids now have the ability to watch out for each other, just like crazy Cameron Hamilton wants.

But that result doesn’t just happen on its own. Kids don’t just pull up their bootstraps. They learn this behavior through anti-bullying programs like the Hero Construction Company, which is exactly the sort of bully education that Hamilton thinks he really hates.

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12 thoughts on “Crazy Cameron Hamilton Knows a Thing or Two about Heroes

  1. Beth says:

    Amen. To you, not him. He’s an idiot. I don’t usually say things like that publicly, but as someone who was badly bullied and still suffers the effects, I’m done being polite to people who think that’s my fault because I didn’t act differently. It is the job of adults to provide safety for children. PERIOD. Kids by definition are not equipped to “handle it themselves,” as you said. And by telling them to suck it up, you teach them to internalize the message that they deserve what they get. The only thing he does get right, as you said, is getting bystanders not to stand by…but as you also said, that is easier said than done.

    Although, I will argue that standing up against a bully may not fit your own definition of heroism, because I’m actually not convinced that it’s completely selfless. One could argue that having a safe environment benefits every child in it, not just the one who is saved from active bullying. Not to minimize the social risk that a bystander takes in standing up; but I think standing up has real benefits for that bystander.

    But that is neither here nor there; the real point is that we have to teach children that bullying is unacceptable, period. That if you are being bullied, you don’t have to stay silent; and that if you speak up, adults will help you, not just become bystanders themselves, which is perhaps the most disturbing trend of all. If the adults in the school don’t stand up against bullies, how can you expect the children to?

  2. I agree that “It’s up to you [the kid] and your friends to put a stop to this.” is a problematic statement.

    The problem is, as far as I know, it’s true. Not in that it *should* be up the kid to put a stop to it, but in the sense that no one else is likely to. I, at least, have some trouble advocating anti-bullying policies — not out of principle, but because the ones we have are often quite infective.

    From what I’ve seen, though I’m not an expert, the first challenge in dealing with bullying is to develop an effective way to do so.

    • My understanding is that the anti-bullying policies that he criticized (in his original comments) are precisely the ones that have been shown to be effective: bullying awareness programs and safe zones within schools.

      • Would you tell me more about these? I haven’t seen any effective policies myself, and searching the two specific ones you mention hasn’t revealed anything with much actual content.

        • Sure. Here’s the full video of one of his Middle School presentations.

          Matt has done a lot of these, and last year commissioned a independent study to assess what impact they’ve had in schools. I don’t think the study has been released yet (I’m sure it would be on his site if it had) but my understanding is the results surpassed even his expectations, including the pro-social outcomes I mentioned in schools.

          That’s in part because his approach is research-based and not just rah-rah; he stays very close to the work done by Dr. Phil Zimbardo and others on not only identifying what heroic behavior is, but also how to teach people to be ready to act heroically when the occasion arises.

          I’ll invite Matt to answer here directly, as he may be able to explain better than myself.

        • I’m actually not a big fan of bullying awareness. No-one needs to be told that bullying is bad. My effort is to empower and engage the bystanders. The only reason bullying works is that so many people allow it.

          The problems with bullying programs, generally, is summed up well here: http://corwin-connect.com/2014/05/want-stop-bullying-forget-bullying-prevention-know. Jim Dillon is incredibly adept at explaining how bullying can be reduced/removed.

            • Bullying awareness is where people come into a school and tell everyone that bullying is bad. Every kid in the school already knows that. The speaker generally shares stories of horrible bullying that he or she experienced and expects that all the kids who bully will stop because they’ve seen how unpleasant it is.

              My program starts with the expectation that everyone knows bullying is bad. I encourage kids to stand up to those doing the bullying on behalf of the targets. There’s enormous risk for some kids to do that, but it’s the only thing that will stop bullying. Empathy combined with the skills to stand up to what’s wrong will change a community.

  3. I was raised by a father who insisted that I, a military brat tormented in small towns across America, handle the bullies. It was horrid, even when I won fights, it never ended. My own children were bullied in turn; I got them martial arts training AND continuously battled the school about bullies. When my daughter defended herself, after warning the bully three times, SHE was suspended for a week. The other girl, who attacked first, only was put out of school for a day as none of her school’s officials witnessed the incident.

    Yes, the mayor is a moron.

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