Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How to Fight Bullying

If bullying and cyberbullying are as rampant as the studies suggest our schools are suffering from a severe breakdown in decorum.

It’s well and good to say that we are going to attack bullying or that we are going to prohibit it. Surely, it would not be a bad idea to make an example of a few bullies by expelling them from school.

And yet, children are not going to stop bullying each other until they learn how to treat each other with respect. They need to learn to practice decorum, to develop good manners and to get along with others in social situations.

They can only learn by doing. Children practice good manners before they understand why they should do so or what it means not to do so. It’s similar to rote memorization of multiplication tables. You learn them before you understand the basic principles of arithmetic.

Unfortunately for a large number of American schoolchildren the designers of the Common Core curriculum did not understand this point. So they refocused on learning how arithmetic was constructed—unnecessary and a waste of time-- and children never learned how to do math efficiently and effectively.

Surely, schools should teach decorum. They should expect that children behave themselves in the classroom. They should sanction children who disrupt the learning experience.

But it is also true that decorum begins at home. For most children it begins with table manners. Parents teach their children how to hold and to use knives and forks. They show their children the correct way to handle utensils. The result is dinner-table harmony. If everyone is using the same table manners, thus showing respect for others, the experience can affirm a child’s sense of belonging to a group.

This helps explain the salutary effects of family dinners.

And yet, family dinners and strong family structures are almost relics. So children are suffering from a pervasive sense of anomie, of not belong to a positive group. Our nation has decided to deal with the problem with medication. It’s not a surprise that many children graduate to drugs and alcohol.

It’s easier and less work than family dinners.

Unfortunately, when it comes to one of the most powerful therapeutic tools, the family dinner, today’s Americans are often too busy and too disorganized to get together regularly as a family over the dinner table. The minute we ask who is going to be responsible for dinner, we enter into the culture wars.

Many families have adopted a disorganized structure... everyone for him- or herself. 

For those parents who need an incentive, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics has shown that children who have family dinners are better able to deal with bullying. One suspects that children whose sense of identity and security is affirmed on a daily basis by participating in family dinners are less likely to be bullied in the first place.

For some children and for some adults being the center of attention is better than being ignored and marginalized. This pertains even when the child is subjected to abuse.

The Daily Mail reports on the study:

Regular family dinners are good for teenagers’ mental health, helping to tackle the problem of cyberbullying, according to new research.

Canadian researchers suggest that the social contact, support and communication experienced during family meals could help shield teenagers from the effects of online bullying.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, surveyed more  than 20,000 adolescents, measuring exposures to cyberbullying and traditional (face-to-face) bullying.

It also asked the teenagers about a wide range of other mental health issues including depression, anxiety, substance use, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal attempts.

The researchers also gathered information on how regularly the teenagers ate a meal with their family.

Teenagers who experienced cyberbullying were 2.6 to 4.5 times more likely to have emotional, behavioural and substance use problems than those who experienced traditional bullying, they found.

These problems were found to be more common among teenagers who had fewer family meals, which suggests that family contact and communication reduces some of the distressing effects of cyberbullying. 

Bullies terrorize people by isolating them, by separating them off from the rest of a group. One way to counteract the effects of bullying is to feel secure as a member of a group.

Obviously, family dinners are not the only way to accomplish this. Belonging to teams and clubs, especially those that are strictly rule-bound, like sports teams will surely help too.

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