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:
- Kids are not encouraged to handle bullying on their own.
- Kids don’t know how to defend themselves physically if need be.
- 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.
My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.