Q. Several boys have been bullying our 10-year-old son, both physically and verbally, since the beginning of this school year. When he went to the counselor's office in tears to report the problem, she told him that tears were not the answer and that he had to get over it because being bullied was just part of life. She then gave my son a pillow to punch and told him to "get it out." He did as she instructed, but when he told her that it didn't make him feel any better, she gave him a list of come-backs to use on the boys. This does not seem a good approach to us. What do you think?
A. I think the counselor's approach was completely inappropriate and irresponsible. In the first place, being bullied is not "just part of life" anymore than is getting mugged. In the second place, giving your son a pillow to punch implies that his anger at being bullied is part of the problem, which it is not. Furthermore, if your son takes her advice and engages the bullies in verbal one-upmanship, the problem is likely to worsen. A school counselor should have enough experience in this area to know that bullies feed off any response at all from their victims.
A child who is the target of bullies should never, ever have to take responsibility for ending the bullying. Just as adults can call and rely upon police when their personal safety is threatened, children in similar circumstances should know they can rely upon adult authority figures to protect them.
Unfortunately, many principals and counselors are afraid to discipline bullies because parents of bullies are notorious for being highly defensive enablers of their little homegrown criminals. Sometimes, school authorities will attempt to "spread the blame around" by suggesting, for example, that the victim must be antagonizing the bully or bullies. The fact is, nothing justifies bullying, especially when it is physical. Nonetheless, it's much easier for a school to treat the victim as the problem or act as if the victim can take care of the problem.
Many schools now conduct anti-bullying programs, which are fine in theory.
When a bully is identified, however, these same schools often go no further than attempting to counsel him (another way of avoiding the potentially messy measure of trying to discipline him). The problem is that counseling and traditional therapy tend to have no effect on sociopaths, which bullies most definitely are.
Under the circumstances, you have three options (which I'll offer in no particular order):
First, find another school for your child or, if it's feasible, consider home-schooling.
Second, the next time your son is physically bullied, press charges against the child in question. Premeditated assault is a crime, even if the perpetrator is 10 years old, and the juvenile justice system exists to deal with children who are engaging in criminal activity.
Third, go to the principal and explain what happened when your son tried to get help from the counselor. There's a good chance he will take a more active approach. If, however, he balks at doing something assertive about the problem, I encourage you to look him in the eye and say something along the following lines: "As the principal of this school, it is your responsibility to provide a safe environment for my child while he is in your care. If you feel unable to do so, then perhaps I need to see what legal recourse our family has in a situation of this sort."
It shouldn't come to that, but if it does, that should sit him up straight.
XJohn Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 East 86th Street, Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240 and at his Web site: http://www.rosemond.com/.