What makes a bully?

By | January 28, 2010

The flood of news coverage about the suicide of Phoebe Prince has set me to thinking about what makes kids into bullies.

My children attend JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.  Students at all academic levels are admitted to the school.  JCDS is less concerned about intellect than about whether the student, and his or her parents, are compatible with the school’s culture.

In the 6½ years I’ve had children at JCDS, only a few families have chosen to leave.  Some of those departures were due to academic needs the school could not fulfill, but others were because their kids simply didn’t fit in.

I’m sure many of you just cringed.  We all know what “didn’t fit in” means, right?  Kids that are brainy, nerdy, funny-looking, or too fat.  Kids who do their homework and care about getting good grades.  Kids who would rather play D&D than football.  Right?

Nope.  At JCDS, fitting in isn’t about any of those things.  Rather, it’s almost entirely about one thing and one thing only: treating others with respect.  Kids with an “attitude” just don’t fit in at JCDS.  What’s most interesting is that usually, their parents don’t either.

For example, one girl who entered the school in first grade left with her family two years later.  During those years, my wife and I saw and heard of countless incidents in which this girl was mean to other kids.  We weren’t surprised by her behavior, because, frankly, she was just like her mother.  Is it any surprise that a woman who adorned her car with a “mean girl” bumper sticker, who seemed to take pride in being pushy, demanding, and self-centered, would have a daughter who had trouble treating her peers with respect?

Bullies are made, not born.  Not every bully has mean parents, but the odds are that when you look at the adults in a bully’s life, you will find people who at best failed to actively model and teach respect, and at worst did the opposite.

Parents are the biggest influence in their children’s lives, but the second biggest influence is, of course, school.  Our schools share responsibility for teaching and modeling respect.  They are, by and large, falling short.

Having a “zero tolerance” policy about bullying isn’t good enough.  Teaching kids why bullying is bad isn’t good enough.  Even empowering kids to step in when they see someone else being bullied isn’t good enough.  People always fall short of the ideal, so if the ideal you’re teaching is “don’t bully,” then guess what — the bullying isn’t going to stop.

Stop teaching students what not to do, and start teaching them what they should do.  Teach them to be nice to their peers.  Teach them to be respectful to their peers.  Teach them that meanness and disrespect, even when they fall short of what one might consider “bullying,” will simply not be tolerated.  And then don’t tolerate it.

A major part of the JCDS curriculum, in every class in every grade, is middot v’derekh eretz.  There is no good translation for these terms, but a loose translation is “character traits and civil, polite, and thoughtful behavior.”  JCDS doesn’t merely teach its students not to be bad.  It teaches them to be good. The results are obvious: the two things remarked upon most often by visitors to the school are that the students are nice and happy.

I challenge the principal of any school with a bullying problem to visit JCDS and learn from their approach.

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2 thoughts on “What makes a bully?

  1. Pingback: What makes a bully? Part 2 « Something better to do

  2. Rhu

    Just last night, Alissa brought up the narrative of Avraham bargaining with God about Sdom and Amorrah, and why Avraham was counting on the presence of tzadikim. True tzadikim are rare; why didn’t Avraham bargain based on the presence of those who weren’t rashaim? The answer, it seemed to us, was that in a place which is dominated by rashaim, it is insufficient to be a not-a-rasha. “Bamakom she-ein ish” and all that.


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