THE BULLY FREE ZONE

bully free zone

Sometimes I mentally rehearse how I would respond if my family were in danger.  If an intruder broke into my home what would I do?  If we were attacked on the street would I be courageous enough to protect them?  I am not sure what gets me thinking about these things, and many times I try to put them out of my mind.  Today however, I watched the documentary Bully directed by Lee Hirsch, this film has got me stirred up again, but this time it is more disturbing.

In my fantasies of family danger I am powerful, swift to action, and able to put myself in the place of my children when they are in danger.  Bullying is a much different beast.  Those who bully tend to be more covert, they have practiced and honed their skills, and many times they are bullied themselves.  The problem with bullying is how powerless adults seem to be in protecting those who are bullied.

Bullying usually does not occur when adults are around, adults cannot sweep in and meet might with might.  In many cases, as depicted in the film all adults can do is talk with the one who is bullying.  They sit in an office and rationalize about kindness, respect, friendship, and permanent school behavioral records.  It all just seems very weak and vividly demonstrates a universal principle that adults hate to admit.

“ADULTS CANNOT CONTROL THE ACTIONS OF CHILDREN”

            I think we hate to admit it because of how scary it is.  Aside from physical coercion we have absolutely no control over the behavior of children.  I cannot make my son clean his room, do his homework, be kind to the neighbor, or apologize to his brother.  Children tend to behave based on what they perceive will get them the thing that they want.  Many times we adults do not understand the pay off for a child’s behavior and therefore fail to find a way to change it.

            I think one solution to this problem is to stop trying to control something that we cannot.  We cannot control a child’s behavior so let’s give it a rest.  Let’s be real and honest with our kids.  Let’s end the charade we have been perpetrating all these years and tell them the truth.

“SON, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE THAT CAN CONTROL YOUR ACTIONS”

            I believe that when we let go of attempting to control our children they will become better citizens.  Please do not misunderstand me I do not think children should be allowed to do whatever they want, have no rules, and no responsibility.  I believe that adults should set the structure and expectations for behavior so that WHEN the child crosses the line appropriate and logical consequences follow.  Adults have fallen into the trap (myself included) of wanting to control a child’s behavior in order to get a certain outcome.  This outcome based parenting sends the message that adults control the child’s behavior; I want to send the message that kids are in charge of their behavior.  They are able to choose their actions and the consequences that follow are part of their choosing.  When adults control behavior, children can blame the adults for the following consequences both good and bad.  When children control behavior the consequences are theirs, they own them.  These owned consequences are the powerful payoff that reinforces or discourages certain behavior.   This is how children learn that they can make life what they want it to be.  In the long run children that know they are in control of themselves are children that step up to stop bullying.  These type of children will “Be More Than Bystanders” by engaging in the following activities

  • Be Their Friend
  • Tell a Trusted Adult
  • Help Them Get Away
  • Don’t Give Bullying an Audience
  • Set a Good Example

Bullying is a very difficult problem.  Solutions must be long term rather than short term.  All adults must play a role in protecting and empowering children at school and in neighborhoods.  A first line defense is to remember that children are in charge of their own behavior.  We want them to be in charge of their actions because when they are in charge they are actively choosing what they want life to be.

For Further reading on how to empower children to stop bullying visit stopbullying.gov

 Have you or your kids ever been bullied, how did you respond?

Can Tolerance Cause More Bullying?

Tolerance

I took my son to the public pool last week.  We had a wonderful time and learned a lesson to last a lifetime.  He was standing in line at the diving board as I was watching from a few feet away.  I noticed that he was talking with a slightly older boy and it appeared the conversation was becoming quite animated.  I resisted my desire to intervene and waited to see what would happen.  After a few more moments my son turned to me and said, “dad he says that I cannot wear a swim shirt on the diving board.”  In uncharacteristic fashion I quickly shot back my response, “it doesn’t matter what he says, it matters what the lifeguard says!”  Just at that moment a lifeguard walked by and I boldly asked, “Is it ok if he wears a swim shirt on the diving board?”  The lifeguard said, “yes!” and walked on without giving it a second thought.  The boys accepted the lifeguard’s answer and continued practicing their cannon balls.

As I reflected on this very brief interaction I began to wonder what it was about this lifeguard (a teenager) that caused the boys to move on so quickly from their disagreement.  Was it his confidence or age?  Maybe it was his gender or personality?  I don’t think so!  I think they accepted his answer because he was viewed as an expert on this topic.  He knows this pool, he is there everyday, he is in charge of safety, and it is his responsibility to enforce the posted rules.

The boys knew that this person’s opinion was important.  It did not matter what anyone else had to say on the subject.  This guy in the red swim trunks and way too dark tan was the final authority.

I am afraid that the art of discerning whose opinion matters has been stripped away from our school age children.  I wonder if in our rush to teach tolerance and acceptance we have inadvertently made our children targets for loud-mouthed bullies?

The Cambridge online dictionary defines tolerance as “willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own, even if you disagree with or disapprove of them.”  It also lists acceptance as a synonym for tolerance.

Please do not get me wrong, I strongly believe in the inherent value of all people.  Each person is wonderfully valuable and deserves to be treated with the utmost respect.  I do suggest however that not all opinions or beliefs are of equal value.  The opinion of the young boy trying to tell my son what he could and could not wear was of very little value.  He was wrong, misguided, and unreliable.  This is not to say that the boy himself was of little value just his opinion.

What does this have to do with bullying?  Well in my experience as a school counselor and therapist I find that those children that are most susceptible to verbal and emotional bullying are those who accept all opinions equally.  Somehow they have learned to accept all opinions and beliefs as truth no matter the source.  Unfortunately, many times this includes all opinions and beliefs that others have about them.  So, It appears that they accept the opinion of the kid who calls them stupid, weak, or ugly as equally valid to the adult who refers to them as kind, intelligent, or strong.  This in my opinion is a horrible mistake and we as parents make an even bigger mistake when we teach our kids that all opinions and beliefs are to be equally accepted.

Simply, it is not true.  My opinion regarding politics for instance is of significantly less value than that of the President of the United States.  It does not mean that I cannot express my opinion loudly and vehemently, but loud and passionate does not make true and accurate.   In the same way a fellow classmates opinion about my child’s level of strength, intelligence, or athletic ability is of much less value than my child’s opinions about himself.

I am regularly asked to referee disagreements about the value of playground opinions.  I have come up with a standard response that I find pretty effective.  When Jimmy runs up to me and says, “Mr. Vander Ley Billy called me a douche bag!” (or some other derogatory name)  Jimmy expects that I will get upset with Billy.  He anticipates consequences and passionate pleas for Billy to be kind and friendly.  I take Jimmy off guard however, when I ask a simple and pointed question.  “Are you a douche bag Jimmy?” “Uh, no” Is the usual response.  “Good, I didn’t think you were, it doesn’t matter what Billy says.”  Off they run to complete their game of girls chase boys (if it hasn’t been banned at their school)

Rather than teaching our children to value all opinions and beliefs equally let’s teach them to discern opinions and beliefs based on sources.  Who are the experts in the field?  Who has put in the time to know this topic?  Who is safe and who is reliable?  If we teach our children to be discerning about truth I think they will come to realize that they are the experts in the field of me.  Their parents and trusted teachers hold reliable information about who they are and what they are good at.  The verbally aggressive playground bully does not know them and is not a trusted source of information.  More importantly this playground bully’s opinion does not create truth regarding their person.  The truth about a child is based in their inherent personal value.  They can sense this value from loving adults who are passionately engaged in the wonder of becoming an expert in the field of them.  Go now you passionate parents and uncover the infinite mystery that is your child!

Before We Talk Gun Control, Let’s Talk Self-Control

I see the video of students running to embrace their parents after the Columbine shooting.  I hear the 9-1-1 calls from Aurora Colorado.  I fear for my child’s safety following Newtown Connecticut.  The images of these tragedies continue to raise serious questions in my mind, what is wrong with our society?  Where does this violence come from?  And what can be done to protect my children?

In the months following the Newtown Connecticut shooting my questions have been societies questions.  The issues have been discussed on news shows, experts have weighed in and there are all sorts of opinions.  Recently however the discussion seems to have focused on gun control.  Who can own them?  How many rounds should they hold? What is the difference between hunting and military style weapons?  And should there be a national gun registry?

I am afraid that these discussions about gun control miss the more important point.  If we are seeking to answer the questions, “what is wrong with society?” “Where does this violence come from?” and “How can we protect our children?” then we must instead be talking about self-control.  We have become a nation of self-indulgence.  The Centers for Disease Control reports that over 1/3 of American adults are obese.  The collapse of the U.S. housing market revealed a pattern of gross overspending and irresponsible lending.  In my work as a school counselor I see many parents indulging their child’s every desire while expecting very little responsibility.  We are surrounded by technologies designed to make life quick and convenient while avoiding the arduous and difficult.

Our children are told that happiness comes from living in the moment, following their heart, and being themself.  Yet according to the U.S. census bureau between 1990 and 2009 for every 6.8 marriages there were 3.4 divorces.  The emphasis placed on self-indulgence does not seem to create successful relationships. What if this over indulgence of self actually makes it easier to discard important relationships?  What about the influence celebrity?  In 2012 Americans spent $1.37 billion on movie tickets.  Many look to these movie stars as well as athletes as role models for success.  However, based on the number of front-page mug shots and court appearances even these cultural figures struggle with self-control.    I am very concerned that my children are growing up in a nation that views impulsivity, selfishness, and self-aggrandizement as virtues rather than vices.

Why are we surprised when a product of this culture does exactly what he was taught to do?  He follows his angry heart, disregards the value of others, and impulsively, irrationally, and selfishly murders innocent people? The real solution for the gun control problem is a radical shift in our national values.  Self-control must not be viewed as an attempt to limit individual freedoms.  Instead, it must be viewed as the ability to choose what is best rather than what is immediate.

Self-control provides a person the power to direct ones life.  I have encountered many students who do not know this.  They seem to believe that self-control is a position of weakness rather than strength.   They are convinced that limiting themselves will result in limited freedom.  What they don’t realize is that controlling ones self is the ultimate in freedom.  The ability to control our impulses, emotions, and desires may be the most difficult task of life.  However, as we learn to harness these inner experiences we are set free from the ups and downs of inner volatility.  We realize that others have absolutely no control over our inner world and thus no control of us.  “I am the only one who can control me.”  What a great freedom and responsibility.  The freedom provides the path to make life what I want it to be.  The responsibility requires that if life is not what I want it to be, I have no one to blame but myself.  Man Life is tough!

My guess is that those who perpetrate mass shootings never learned the lesson of self-control.  They never realized that they were ultimately in control of their thoughts, emotions, fantasies, and actions.  I would guess they felt a sense of their life being out of control.  I imagine they felt provoked to commit these crimes and saw no other escape from their prison of anger, hurt, and loneliness.  My hope is that as we shift from a culture of self-indulgence to self-control that the would-be murderers will regain the power to direct their life.  I hope they will find freedom in valuing others, connecting in relationships, and living in reality.  That is the best gun control only an individual can create.

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project

I Hope My Son Drops Out of High School…

I hope my sons drop out of high school if they find it to be a total waste of their time.  I have long considered schools unfriendly environments for boys and a recent article in the New York Times only confirmed my hunch.  The article sights a study finding, “that boys across all racial groups and in all major subject areas received lower grades than their test scores would have predicted.”

The researchers attributed the discrepancy to, “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently.”   As a father of 3 energetic boys I know that “noncognitive skills” can be very challenging for young boys to master.

 I was reminded of two recent interactions that fueled my frustration as I considered the educational challenges many boys face in the coming years.

            The first interaction was an enrollment meeting for a student that was returning to our school after having missed most of a semester due to truancy, spending some time in the department of corrections, and being “home schooled”.   He sat silently and solemnly as we spoke about his need to take responsibility, complete his work, attend regularly, and have a positive attitude.  He barely acknowledged us but with a shrug agreed to the expectations.  I was struck by how horrible it must feel to be stuck for days and years in a place that seemed purposeless.  Had this young man just traded a prison of bars and guards for one comprised of textbooks and teachers?

The second interaction was a fourth grader who has not done good work at school for years and has done minimal work for the last few days.  His acting out had grown worse and his unpredictable behavior required one-on-one supervision.  He is a wonderfully likable boy; his hands are stained black from his hobby of fixing and selling broken bicycles.  He knows more about an engine than I ever will.  Every time I enter the room he pretends to pull the thumb off my hand.  We joke around, I act surprised and he puts it back as we say hello.  Today’s interaction was like many others but I was again struck by his imprisonment.  He has 8 more years of school before he will be able to make a living doing what he enjoys.  He will likely work with his hands fixing cars, building houses, or driving machinery.  My guess is that he will be very good at it, but until then he is stuck inside pushing pencils and causing “problems”.

These boys do not want to be in school, they discovered a long time ago that it does not work for them.  They do not see how math, english, and science are going to help them in the real world.  They do not care about following rules, sitting still, or reading a loud, these skills will not help them survive their environment.

My mind immediately moved to solutions.  How can these boys be re-engaged in the learning environment?  What can be done to provide an increased sense of success? Here are my thoughts.

Provide a sensory rich educational environment.

Fewer recesses, cuts in P.E., pressure to perform on standardized tests, and limited budgets all contribute to sensory deprivation in schools.  A lot of classroom instruction is limited to the senses of vision and hearing.  Many boys learn best by touching, smelling, tasting, and especially doing.  A varied and dynamic learning environment could engage all the senses and cells of a child’s body.  Reasonable breaks for large muscle movement, snacks, and social interaction could also reinvigorate a student.

  Increased parental support

Many people would like to blame the parents for not providing enough support.   It is true that many parents do not have the emotional, psychological, or financial resources to provide the support their children need to find success in school.   Many of these parents are struggling to provide for basic needs, they may be preoccupied with personal difficulties, or have had bad experiences in school themselves.  For whatever reason many parents struggle to emphasize education as a family priority making it extremely difficult for their child to succeed.  Parents need to step up!  Too much responsibility has been placed on schools and teachers.  Parents teach values, self-control, and work ethic. Abdicating these jobs to schools creates an impossible task and an adversarial environment.  Parents must trust schools and work to reinforce the shared goals of hard work, responsibility, learning, and growth.

Create clear connections between future work and current curriculum

I have found very few boys that were not willing to work hard as long as they could see the purpose in their effort.  It may be difficult for boys to see how toiling for years in math, english, and science books will prepare them for careers as a welder, carpenter, business man, or engineer.  Some boys desire skills, hands on training, and practical experience.  What happened to vocational schools?  Can a 15- year- old apprentice with a plumber for his last two years to earn his high school diploma?  Learning outside the classroom, in real work situations could provide purpose and engagement that cannot be found in a book.

   A realistic valuation of college vs. career paths

Is it true that everyone should go to college?  I think not! Not all students are interested in or capable of continued studies.  Students are warned that they won’t be able to get a good job without a college education.  This is just not true.  Many times college-educated students struggle to find work while those with practical skills are in high demand.  The skills of hard work, perseverance, and intuition can be just as valuable as a college education.  I hope that we will begin to see careers in the trades as equally honorable as compared to a professional career.

            I am hopeful that my sons will graduate from high school.  However, without a sensory rich educational environment, increased engagement from yours truly, clear connections between future career and current curriculum, and increased valuation of the trades they may not make it.  If they choose the path of GED and trade training, I am confident they will find success.  I will be proud of their hard work, honesty, and integrity.  I will be honored to be their father.

What has school been like for your son or daughter?