Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bully Bully

Confrontation with a bully is a central theme of children's and adolescent fiction. It also a principal trial of youth for many. It's easy to see bullying as a natural outgrowth of the youthful competition for status that we share with our Chimpanzee relatives - working your way up the hierarchy by beating your way up. The fact that bullying is a normal part of childhood is hardly proof that we need to put up with it though. There is plenty of evidence that bullying is bad for the bullies as well as for the victims.

Peter Klass, MD, writing in the New York Times says that we know how to eliminate or greatly decrease bullying. Europeans, he says, have developed the techniques.

Next month, the American Academy of Pediatrics will publish the new version of an official policy statement on the pediatrician’s role in preventing youth violence. For the first time, it will have a section on bullying — including a recommendation that schools adopt a prevention model developed by Dan Olweus, a research professor of psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway, who first began studying the phenomenon of school bullying in Scandinavia in the 1970s. The programs, he said, “work at the school level and the classroom level and at the individual level; they combine preventive programs and directly addressing children who are involved or identified as bullies or victims or both.”

Dr. Robert Sege, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and a lead author of the new policy statement, says the Olweus approach focuses attention on the largest group of children, the bystanders. “Olweus’s genius,” he said, “is that he manages to turn the school situation around so the other kids realize that the bully is someone who has a problem managing his or her behavior, and the victim is someone they can protect.”

The other lead author, Dr. Joseph Wright, senior vice president at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington and the chairman of the pediatrics academy’s committee on violence prevention, notes that a quarter of all children report that they have been involved in bullying, either as bullies or as victims. Protecting children from intentional injury is a central task of pediatricians, he said, and “bullying prevention is a subset of that activity.”

One problem they will have in implementing this, I suspect, is that bullying actually has a fairly substantial fan club. Bullies may have limited career opportunities in the modern world unless they are otherwise suited for the role of mafia enforcer, CEO, or drill Sergeant, but teaching high school and junior high has often been one. Even those who were on the other end of the stick may have mixed feelings - I still fondly remember besting a couple of bullies who tormented me more than half a century ago.

Spreading the message may not be trivial, but it is worth doing. Of course our fiction may be poorer for it.