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Q&A with Dr. Susan Porter author of Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone

I haven’t received my copy of Bully Nation yet but I was so enthralled by the title that I just had to do a quick Q&A with Dr. Porter. I’m looking forward to reading it and I’ll keep everyone updated on Goodreads. Every time someone says the word bully in my presence I shudder. I want to ask them a million questions like, “Oh it is an every day occurrence? Thrice a day? Do they have power over you? Is it a large pack of kids? No? Then why did you call it bullying?”

Here’s a video I made more than 2 years ago.

I hate that we’ve labeled normal behavior bullying and turned kids into whiny victims hiding in their mothers’ skirts. Finally there’s an academic who sees things similarly (though probably states it with more grace).

Why do you think so many people say they’ve been bullied? If you read blogs you’d think that every human being who ever went to middle school was bullied. 

Our current definition of bullying is so bloated that I’m shocked everyone isn’t blogging about being bullied. Currently, behaviors such as social exclusion, teasing, name-calling, and persistent unfriendliness are considered to be bullying, which means almost everyone can lay claim to victimhood. Who among us wasn’t teased in middle school? Who wasn’t left out at some point? These are practically rites of passage in middle school; it’s the dark side of this age (is there a bright side?). Much of middle school behavior now falls under the bully umbrella, so it makes sense that many of us look back and see our experiences through bully colored lenses. 

In addition, we give victims of bullying a lot of attention these days. There is glory attached to saying we’ve been bullied, and no one questions what we mean when we say we’ve been bullied. Were we smacked around by a bigger kid? Not invited to a birthday party? Called a slut on Facebook? Who knows, and it doesn’t matter—saying we’ve been bullied is sufficient cause to demand attention. We can blog about our experiences with impunity. No one dares to question a bully tale because that’s blaming the victim, and that is anathema.

Do you think there’s some benefit in a child (or an adult) having their feelings hurt and knowing that they can survive hurt feelings?

Not only is there a benefit to learning how to survive hurt feelings, it is a necessity for developing true psychological maturity. Kids who are protected from their feelings, or who are taught that painful feelings are to be avoided, don’t get the chance to develop real resilience. Imagine if we tried to shield our children from using their legs. Admittedly, using our legs can make us feel tired and achy, but the process also makes us strong, and it ensures that our legs will carry us from danger when necessary. Developing psychological resilience isn’t much different. We need to experience negative feelings sometimes, and often the process makes us feel tired and achy. But just because the process is difficult doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We can’t run a marathon without feeling discomfort, and we can’t develop emotional resilience without feeling discomfort either.

What happens when we send kids out into the workforce who are unable to handle a bully? 

Everyone needs to know how to deal with conflict, and the anti-bullying movement is sending kids the message that they shouldn’t have to tolerate conflict or deal with people who offend them. When kids accept this message, it sets them up for real hardship later in life. Adults must tolerate all manner of conflict, sometimes in the workplace, and we must prepare our children for this. We need to teach them not to be scared of disagreement, and that sometimes they will encounter people and situations that are difficult. We must also teach them to stand up for themselves without having to be victims in the process. This is the mistake we’re now making with our anti-bullying initiatives. Kids are being taught to stand up for themselves as victims against perpetrators; we are dividing their world into black and white. The truth is kids can be strong without being victims. Kids can be hurt without being victims. Kids can even be wronged without being victims. These are the things we need to teach them. When they’ve learned these lessons, they will be able to stand up to anyone in the workplace.

What if you think your child is a bully? What then?  

I personally don’t know any parents who think their child is a bully. Usually, it’s the other kid that’s the problem.

That said, if parents are concerned about a child’s level of aggression toward other children, they should seek help immediately from a school counselor, trusted religious leader or group, pediatrician, or a licensed mental health professional (a pediatrician can provide referrals).

How can parents shift the paradigm so that we aren’t nurturing this bizarre pride in being a victim? 

Parents can do a lot by not using labels: just say no to terms such as bully, victim, bystander, whatever. Labels create something called a fixed mindset, which keeps kids (and adults) stuck as they try to deal with troublesome dynamics. As soon as we label people, we see them in a very limited light, and this determines how we move forward.

Let’s say your child comes home from school complaining about another child. Your child feels hurt, wronged, and bullied by his peer. You have a choice about how to react. You can focus just on his feelings of victimhood—and react as though his emotions are solely the result of another child’s behavior—or, once he’s calmed down, you can ask what happened, try to understand the dynamic that took place between the children, and ask him what part he played in the situation. You can also help him troubleshoot, think about what he needs to solve the problematic dynamic, and identify people (besides you) who can help (teachers, friends, etc.). This communicates to the child that he has some control over the situation, and that he’s not defined by his feelings of pain (which is what the label victim suggests). 

Victims believe they are defined by their negative feelings and by other people’s behavior. If we want to raise children who feel empowered, we must teach them how to manage their negative feelings and negative interactions with others, all without feeling like victims

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