Girls can be mean. Boys will be boys. These are just a few of the clichés people use when kids are bullied. But Barbara Coloroso said bullying is not a normal part of childhood.
Using both humour and compassion, Coloroso brought her more than 30 years of experience to Vernon last week in her presentation, The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander.
The Colorado-based author, speaker, former classroom teacher, mother and grandmother, spoke to a packed ballroom of parents, educators and students at the Best Western Vernon Lodge.
“I’m here to help you recognize the antithesis of the bystander, a kid who isn’t easily led, but has the gift of skepticism and wonder and why, why, why,” said Coloroso, 66. “I want your 16-year-old to have that wow and the why, so when other kids say ‘let’s go and vandalize that building,’ I want your son to have the courage to say no or your daughter to have the courage to go and sit with the new girl in the cafeteria, to embrace kids with different skin colour, different religion.
“I’m counting on young people to say ‘no more, not here, never.’”
Using historical examples, Coloroso pointed to the genocide in Rwanda, where she worked as a volunteer, when as much as 3/4 of the Tutsi population was murdered by Hutu extremists.
“In 100 days, about one million people were macheted to death because they were made into an it, they were dehumanized.
“The same thing happened when the Nazis exterminated six million Jews — to them, they were not killing humans, they were killing vermin and cockroaches.
“So we can’t tolerate our children verbally dehumanizing another human being and then saying, ‘oh, we were just joking.’”
She said the three conditions that are necessary for genocide to occur are also in place for bullying: unquestioning obedience to authority; routinization of cruelty and dehumanization of a person or class of people.
“But how do we raise a generation of kids who will stand up to these injustices?”
Coloroso said it’s essential to teach children how to make choices from a young age, beginning with something simple such as the colour of pyjamas they choose to wear.
“Have them make choices and allow them to have the consequences of their own choices, unless of course it’s life-threatening. I like to give kids opportunities to make decisions and mistakes. If a kid doesn’t learn how to make choices early, they will listen to their peers instead.”
While parents may feel frustrated if their child is strong-willed, Coloroso said these are the kids who tend not to get bullied.
“The compliant child is easily led by others. We want to raise them to be that strong, bravehearted kid.”
She said bullying is about contempt, allowing kids to harm others without feeling empathy, compassion or shame.
“When I hear girls describe each other as sluts, that’s how it begins. It’s the language we use that turns somebody into an it. And it starts in our houses, in our schools and in our community because we have to be taught how to hate, bullying is a learned behaviour. How do you treat that new neighbour whose skin colour is different from your own — your children are watching.
“We all have bigoted relatives spewing racist and sexist comments disguised as a joke, when all the other relatives say, ‘can’t you take a joke.’ But when your children hear that, what your child witnesses you doing is what your daughter will do in Grade 8 to the new girl.”
Coloroso said the humour that kids are exposed to through TV programs also has a role to play.
“Humour is so mean now, and we have to teach kids the difference between teasing, which is what kids do to each other as friends, and taunting, which is what bullies do.
“With friends, teasing is only a small part of the relationship. But with taunting it is the relationship: it’s bullying.”
Coloroso said teasing between friends isn’t intended to hurt the other person and is meant to get both parties to laugh. Taunting involves cruel or bigoted comments thinly disguised as jokes.
“You can be targeted for so many reasons. Most targeted kids are very sensitive human beings. Bullies are cowards who try to isolate a kid.
“We have to teach kids very young to have a healthy regard for their sexuality, their ethnicity. We are also seeing bullying around disabilities, including allergies, and kids who are overweight.”
Coloroso said adults often handle bullying badly, by isolating the bullied child.
“We tell them to avoid the bully, to eat somewhere else, but why is it up to the targeted kid to eat somewhere else? What are we doing with the bullies? Why don’t they have to sit at the front of the bus?”
And with the exposure kids now have to social media, cyber bullying is all too real.
“Bullies are using high tech tools to threaten, stalk, ridicule, humiliate, taunt and spread rumours about their targets. The characteristics of bullying are magnified with the use of electronic technologies.
“Adults are digital immigrants, whereas young people are digital natives. We have to teach them to be digital savvy, but we have to get up to speed on this. We have to teach them that there is no delete on the Internet — it is out there forever, so before it goes out there, we need to ask, ‘is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?’”
In her book, The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, Coloroso calls bystanders the supporting cast who aid and abet the bully, through acts of omission and commission. They stand idly by or look away, or they actively encourage the bully or join in and become one of a bunch of bullies.
“Injustice overlooked or ignored becomes a contagion that infects even those who thought they could turn away.
“Bullying is challenged when the majority stands up against the cruel acts of the minority.
“We need to keep the target safe, keep the witness safe and we need to deal with the bully,” said Coloroso, adding that restorative justice is effective: retribution, restitution, resolution.
“Empower your kid, and make sure the school knows what’s going on. Adults need to say, ‘I believe you, I hear you.’ Your kid needs to have somewhere safe to tell. We need to empower kids, we need to teach them some good comebacks. Assertion dissipates aggression.
“I want your kid to do something good for someone else, which I also recommend for the bully. But for the bullied, one of the best ways to heal is to do something good.
“We are humbling the bully and healing the target. We want them to care deeply about another human being.”