The term bully pulpit was coined by Theodore Roosevelt. He used it to refer to the presidency as a platform from which to advocate an important agenda or idea. Bully in those days was a positive term meaning good or superior. We sometimes use it in this way today, albeit sarcastically, as when we say, "Bully for you."
Well, I may not be the president, but I would like to use my humble platform in the form of this column to make a serious plea for awareness and intervention when it comes to bullying in our community.
In my office, I hear from both sides of the sandbox. I often have parents in tears because their child is picked on mercilessly at school. I also have parents, one just this morning in fact, who are having their play dates cancelled because their children are the ones doing the bullying. Each position is painful for parents and each poses special challenges for pediatricians, teachers and society as a whole.
Bullying is aggression. We are familiar with overt kinds of bullying such as pushing kids around on the play yard and the verbal taunting and teasing of children. But bullying also includes things like socially ostracizing kids or starting rumors about them. And nowadays there is even something called cyberbullying, which involves the electronic texting of hateful messages or rumors about people, or posting material that is cruel on blogs or Web sites. Cyberbullying may be unique in that it can be anonymous.
Key aspects of bullying are that it occurs over time and that it involves an imbalanced relationship in which the victim is seen as weaker than the bully by virtue of size, age or social position.
Although bullying can occur anywhere, it tends to occur most frequently during school hours and at times and places that are typically not as well supervised as the classroom. Hallways, play yards and busses are prime sites, and lunch and recess prime occasions for bullying.
The characteristics of bullies and their victims differ, but the consequences for both can be grave. Bullies are more likely to have trouble with the law. In fact, male bullies are four times more likely to be convicted of a crime than non-bullies. For victims, fear is a major consequence of being bullied. This fear can lead to chronic absenteeism from school, poor grades, anxiety and depression. Bully-victims, the term used to describe children who both bully and are bullied, also suffer from fear and low self-esteem. One frightening statistic reported recently by Dr. Gwen Glew in the Journal of Pediatrics was that bully-victims were more likely to report that it was OK to bring a gun to school than bystanders did.
So what can we collectively do about bullying in our community? We first need to be aware of its presence, which can be easier said than done. Although children often say that talking about their experiences with bullying is helpful, the truth is only about 50 percent of them will report it to anyone. So we have to ask the questions. Have you ever been teased at school? Do you know other children who are teased? Have you told a teacher? Clues such as a drop in grades, frequent trips to the school nurse or increasing absenteeism should alert us to the possibility of bullying.
Parents should report any concerns they or their children have to school authorities. Teachers should increase supervision over the children being bullied. Should bullying be witnessed or reported, the bullies should be confronted about their actions and there should be clear and certain consequences. Once children see there are consequences to bullying, they may be more forthcoming in reporting it.
If you find that your child has bullied other children, be clear about your expectations of them. Let them know that this is not acceptable behavior and encourage them to apologize to their victims. Examine your own values and ways of dealing with conflict to be sure you are modeling healthy interactions.
If your child has been the victim of bullying, try to role-play various ways of dealing with the situation, from walking away to telling a teacher. School psychologists may be helpful to families of both bullies and victims by mediating meetings between the two.
Both bullies and victims can benefit from activities that build confidence and enhance self-esteem. Parents should try to play to their children's strengths and engage them in activities in which they are interested and perhaps excel. Sports, art and drama can all be avenues for venting anger and frustration as well as vehicles for increasing feelings of self-worth and pride.
The idea that the rearing of children is so crucial that it cannot be left to the individual but needs to be the responsibility of the entire society goes back to Plato in his discussions of the ideal state in The Republic. The African proverb "it takes a village to raise a child" fits right in with Plato's philosophy. This concept is as vital today as it ever was. The point, is we are all responsible for our children's education and that involves teaching them treat each other with respect.
Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a board certified pediatrician with Merrimack Valley Child and Adolescent Health and Merrimack Valley Hospital. Her office is at Merrimack Health Center, 62 Brown St. adjacent to the hospital. She can be reached at 978-521-8108. Parents are invited to e-mail questions for future columns to CRoy.MVCAH@comcast.net.