Parents in Australia are fuming over a recent blog posted to the website of a private all-boys school, in which it’s suggested that victims of bullying should “own their part of the problem.”
The post, which was written by resilience counselor Melissa Anderson, was published on the Brighton Grammar School website May 1. In it, Anderson tells children that “in any bullying situation, you must own your part of the problem, no matter how small, no matter how unfair it may seem. No one is lily-white and blameless.”
This doesn’t sound like the typical anti-bullying message to me. In fact, one has to wonder: Is this even an anti-bullying message at all? Or is this a victim-blaming message?
Anderson goes on to tell parents:
“If your son is currently being bullied, in the spirit of cleaning up your side of the street: Is he part of the problem? Even 5%? Is he a whinger, a complainer, self-absorbed, an exaggerator, loose with the truth, a passive doormat, displaying negative body language, an approval addict, a try hard, critical or a bad sport?”
“Of course, you might say but how can my son clean up his side of the street if he is the target of cruel taunts because he has buck teeth, acne, a disability or a lisp. That’s not his fault.”
“Of course, it’s not his fault, but owning his small part of the unpleasant problem may be learning to stand up for himself, developing grit, steely self-belief, strong self-esteem, choosing his friends wisely and reminding himself that the bullies are dealing with their own demons and that the problem lies principally with them and not him.”
Unsurprisingly, the backlash was swift and loud.
“Are we seriously being told that if a child with buck teeth is king hit by a bully he has a part to play in the attack?,” one commenter asked. “No wonder we cannot seem to get our culture of violence under control.”
Another commenter suggested, “How about working harder to get aggressive and bullying children to develop empathy for other people and to develop respect for other human beings before putting the blame on kids who might find it harder to fit in socially and make friends.”
One person said simply, “What a complete and utter crock of sh*t.”
In the wake of the backlash, Anderson posted her own follow-up comment:
“Bullying is an extremely sensitive issue and we deeply regret any upset or distress caused to our readers — this was not our intention. We believe that [Anderson’s] article contains an important message of empowerment, however we hear the comments of some followers calling for articles with more practical tips for those experiencing bullying, and we are looking to publish content on this issue that does just that.”
On the school’s official Facebook page Tuesday, Brighton’s Headmaster, Ross Featherston, announced that the school was canceling a planned presentation by Anderson, saying that he’d like to “unreservedly apologize” to anyone distressed by the post. He went on to state, it’s a “school’s responsibility to be proactive about bullying” and that Anderson’s message was meant to be a resource to help parents and students understand “respectful relationships, bullying and such issues.”
By the looks of the comments, many are wondering if the school’s response was simply PR-speak designed to minimize fallout from the scandal, and it is unclear whether Brighton endorses Anderson’s message or not. Regardless of the school’s opinion, though, Anderson’s “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” message can be incredibly harmful to children who are already feeling vulnerable and unprotected, children who feel like they don’t have the even proverbial boots in the first place.
Anderson concluded her blog post by admitting that she herself was bullied as child and that the bullying only stopped when she was “brave enough and self-aware enough to ‘own’ [her] part of the problem.” She goes on to state that she “earned respect whilst building self-respect.”
While bravery and self-awareness may have worked for Anderson, it is important to remember that she is looking back on her particular experience in hindsight, from the perspective of an adult — not from the perspective a child who is the midst of bullying, or from the perspective of a parent whose child is the victim of bullying.
What’s more, just because self-awareness worked for Anderson in her situation, it doesn’t mean that this strategy will work for other children — nor that children should even need bravery and self-awareness to make bullying stop. We want our children to feel safe and comfortable coming to us when they have a problem or are being hurt. But how can they trust us if they are shamed into believing they are part of the problem?
Not only is the victim shaming problematic, but Anderson’s use of the “victor” concept is also particularly troublesome. Is this what we want our children to be? Victors? Is this an either/or proposition — either you are a “victor” or a “victim?” Because this is not the kind of message I want sent to my children. I don’t want them believing that life is a contest in which strength and power create victors, and sensitivity and compassion mean you are a victim. Most parents I know want their children to grow up in a world that values kindness, empathy and compassion; not a world in which victims are shamed and life is a competition of power and strength.
I also couldn’t help but notice that the blog post was written for an all-boys school. As the mother to two boys myself, I cringe at the messages of toughness, strength, and power that our boys are constantly sent. Do I think our children — boys and girls — can benefit from a sense of empowerment and resilience? Absolutely. Do I think that grit and courage are helpful skills? Of course. But all too often, our boys are told to “man up” or “take it like a man” when life hands them challenges or their hearts are bruised. Boys — and grown men, for that matter — feel things deeply, and to minimize their emotions and hurt feelings as “unmanly” or to blame them if they are the victim of bullying continues to perpetuate these outdated stereotypes of what it means to be a man. I am trying to raise my boys to be strong and brave men, but also to be kind, sensitive, compassionate, and empathetic men as well. And this means honoring their feelings, letting them cry, and teaching them to look out for others — not telling them that it’s their fault if they are bullied.
There is a difference between childish behavior and bullying, and sometimes our kids make mistakes and need to be reminding of the need to respect other’s feelings. A few years ago, I found out that my son — who was in kindergarten at the time — had teased another boy in his class about having a “girlfriend.” It wasn’t anything that rose to the level of bullying, but it definitely wasn’t kind behavior either. I was angry, hurt, embarrassed, and sad. How could my child do this?, I wondered. How dare he tease another little boy, I fumed. But here’s the thing: kids make mistakes and they need us to help them learn. So despite my anger and although I was on the verge of tears, I talked to my son about how he had hurt this boy’s feelings. I talked to him about being aware of other’s feelings. And then he apologized, sincerely and remorsefully.
Yes, children make mistakes and they need us to help them learn. But wouldn’t we rather they learn that strength comes from kindness? Wouldn’t we rather they learn there is no place for bullying whatsoever? And wouldn’t we rather learn they learn compassion than shame?
According to Brene Brown, world-renown psychologist and shame expert, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
I think most parents would agree that, above all, we want our children to feel worthy of love and belonging. Which means that there is no place for victim-shaming — especially in the case of bullying.More On