Anti-bullying programs get a lot of attention these days, because everyone wants to spare children the trauma of true bullying. Yet in spite of our best efforts, the problem is not getting better, and some experts worry that we are creating new problems for our kids.
One problem is that, contrary to what many parents (and children) think, not every insult is "bullying." Sometimes it is just plain old conflict, and children need to learn how to deal with it. Negative feedback is a normal part of human interaction and learning how to respond is an important part of growing up. Wise adults don't get involved in developmentally normal disputes between children. True bullying that warrants adult intervention is a much more serious, and sustained, activity.
In spite of the explosive growth of anti-bullying programs, we still have a bullying problem. So it is fair to wonder if any of those programs is effective. The depressing answer seems to be that they generally aren’t. The Department of Justice has evaluated 13 programs, and found only 3 of them to be effective. 7 others are “promising,” but lack effectiveness in one or more areas. Another study found that some programs are effective up to 7th grade, but that starting in 8th grade, the programs are ineffective or even counterproductive.
One critique of anti-bullying programs is that they actually encourage children to think of themselves as victims who need help from adults to navigate social situations. A recent study found that encouraging people to think of themselves as victims fosters “competitive victimhood,” and that the resulting attitudes actually increase conflict. Professor Irshad Manji is an educator who argues that schools can best help children by teaching them how “not to be offended.” Her argument is in line with studies showing that children who have adults overly involved in their lives grow into young adults with significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety, while moderate levels of adversity may increase resilience and coping skills.
People who work with children must not ignore bullying, but we must allow children to work through normal conflict. That line is not an easy one to draw but erring on either side is bad for children. Understanding the difference between bullying and conflict is an important part of being an adult and teaching that difference to children is an important part of helping them grow up. We need to find anti-bullying programs that actually work (as opposed to just making us feel good) and resist the urge to protect children from normal growing pains.