Deborah Hansen: Adults are often the people who teach kids how to bully

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By Deborah Hansen


She stood six inches shorter than the student, but the teacher had somehow managed to get into his face anyway. Her body language screamed as loudly as her voice.

“Hit me! Go ahead! I’ll lay you out, boy!” The young man’s face was tense, but he never flinched. He refused to be provoked.

Let’s get this out on the table: Bullying is not a “kid” problem. Children don’t ridicule and harass others without instruction and modeling. The lessons are transmitted through adult behavior and language. Bullying behavior is honed to a razor’s edge when adults berate cashiers, scream at pedestrians, or demean others.

Parents bully their children and call it discipline. Teachers bully their students and call it education. Spouses bully each other and label it marriage. Bosses bully employees and then those employees bully each other. Many adults take pride in this behavior, calling it “standing up for” themselves. Children watch it all and learn.

The problem is multi-faceted. As the former coordinator for character education for a large school district (and a former classroom teacher), I believe that everyone is responsible for teaching children how to be people of good character and positive members society. That means all of us supporting and helping one another raise kind, moral and decent people. In other words, people who don’t bully one another to get what they want.

Teachers are embattled folks even on a good day. They face evaluations dependent on the achievement of their students, with many parameters of that achievement outside their control. They are caught between increasing district mandates. Students are often unruly, taking a lot of time away from learning. Teachers can’t teach until students are civil.

But that still doesn’t eliminate the bullying behavior that young people witness from adults. The principal bullies the teachers, and district staff bullies the principals. All the bully-prevention efforts mean nothing when kids see the opposite modeled for them daily.

This is why bully-prevention programs in schools will not stop bullying. The programs are well-intentioned and often well-crafted. Teaching kids how to get along in life is never wasted effort.

The larger issue, though, are the adults. Grown-ups who bully are generally ignored and some are admired. They have no idea their behavior is aberrant and doing damage to the children around them. Children learn through demonstration, and some adults are doing a bang-up job of modeling bad behavior.

Until we first acknowledge the true source of the problem, we have little hope of curtailing bullying in schools. Adults are the teachers and adults must be the ones to demonstrate a more humane way of life. We must ask the hard questions: do we continue to lay this issue at the steps of our schools and expect them to fix it alone? Or do we have the will to tackle bullying at its source? We each need to look in the mirror and assess. And, yes, that means you.

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