Standing Up to Bullying: Refusing to Be a “Victim”
Note: The issue of bullying is serious and multifaceted. I am in no way suggesting that we don't intervene. I am in no way suggesting that we "blame the victim" and withhold necessary support. My goal in writing this piece is simply to make sure that our attempts to help don't result in exacerbating an already horrendous problem.
A teacher in Florida wrote and asked me to address the issue of bullying, specifically asking how we can help kids stand up to bullies. First, I encourage you to read "Getting at the Roots of Bullying," an article I wrote for the Virginia Journal of Education a couple of years ago.
Those of you familiar with my work know that I'm particularly interested in language because I believe the words we use contribute to the reality we create, something I discuss in "Watch Your Language!" So how does our use of language relate to bullying? How does our language affect kids who have been victimized? When exploring the dynamics of bullying, we typically read about three main roles: the bully, the victim, and the bystander (or "egger"). While I appreciate that labels can help us communicate, the use of labels frightens me and can lead to a host of unexpected problems.
Look at what happens when we label a child as a "victim." We begin to interact with the child with the label of victim in mind, nonconsciously treating them in ways we consider appropriate to use with a victim. It doesn't take long for the child to perceive him or herself as a victim, internalizing the limitations that label brings.
I don't want kids who have been victimized to internalize the experience and become victims. In other circumstances, we separate the child from the behavior. A child may choose to act badly, but that doesn't make him a "bad kid;" a child may do poorly on a test, but that doesn’t make him a "poor student;" a child may lie or steal or take drugs, but that doesn't make him a "liar," or a "thief," or a "druggie."
Noted developmental psychologist Erik Erikson emphasized the importance of avoiding labels because children often subsequently behave in ways that fulfill the label in an effort to be on the fast track of identity formation, the central developmental task of adolescence. It's far better to separate the behavior from the child.
The same applies when dealing with children who have been victimized. Even if our intention is designed to help and protect, when we label the child a victim, we unintentionally help him become one. Instead, support the child without using a potentially damaging label. Affirm that he has been victimized—things do happen to us, but they don't have to define us—but let them retain their dignity by refraining from identifying them as victims. One way to stand up to bullies is to refuse the label of victim.
Bob Sullo is an ASCD author and educational consultant. Over the course of his career, he has worked with both regular education and special education students from pre–K through graduation in elementary, middle, and high school. Visit Sullo's website, read his blog, and follow him on Twitter.