Why “Anti-Bullying” Doesn’t Work – Part I

don't bully anti-bullying doesn't work pro0social skillsAs I sit down to write this, I'm already imagining the controversy this post is going to generate. But before I go too far down the path, let me say that this is not an anti-bullying bashing party.  It's an attempt to explain what is fatally wrong with our attempts to end the bullying epidemic in our schools and communities.

I believe the "anti-" approach is wrong.

In many of my presentations that I give across the country to parents, educators and administrators, I use a quote that Mother Teresa once said about our attempts to end global conflict and a request that she appear at an event. She responded by saying

"I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there." - Mother Teresa

I use this quote a lot because it seems we have the same problem with "anti-bullying."  We're calling attention to the wrong thing, and, very much too late in the game.

If you know much about brain functioning, you may have heard that our human brains have difficulty computing negatives. It's as though the brain has to do a double-take and "reprocess" the information when it encounters something like "don't" or "can't." The study of neurolinguistics is finding some very interesting results that seem to back this up.  An article I recently came across may suggest that using the words "don't" when trying to change negative behavior may be actually unwittingly supporting that negative behavior.

I'll try to summarize this but you can read the full article here.   One example the author uses is the effect of telling yourself, when in a stressful situation, "Don't panic."  If you hear a fire alarm in a crowded gymnasium and repeatedly tell yourself "Don't panic, don't panic" you may find yourself breaking into a run in spite of your best intentions.  This effect is referred to as "negation."

Now, imagine you are a young child in the same situation.  Children are believed to be more susceptible to negation's effects, so the "don't" message that we are trying to teach them. Tell a toddler, "Don't touch" invariably causes that child to want to reach out even more strongly.

I can personally vouch for my brain's "don't" disconnect. Any of you play golf?  Ok, in that case, here's a real-life scenario for you and tell me if this hasn't happened to you: You're teeing off at a particularly challenging spot, where you just KNOW if you hit the ball right, it's a goner.  You tell yourself, "Don't hit right, don't hit right, don't hit right." What happens...chances are that ball goes zooming as right as rain.  We also know that our brains tend to process messages that we tell ourselves and "miraculously" we find ourselves acting out just what we were thinking.

Ever find yourself carrying a tray of something fragile and you tell yourself "oh, don't DROP that!"  Next thing you know...shards.  Your brain has managed to filter out that "don't" and has rewarded you with exactly what it picked up, i.e. "Drop it."

Now, what does this have to do with bullying?  Well, look at the messages most anti-bully approaches have: "Don't bully," "No Bully Zone," "You Can't Bully Me," "Don't be Mean," "Don't make fun of people."  They are negation messages that are also, at the same time calling attention to negative behavior.

And, if you know anything about human motiviation it's this:

  1. We respond to positive attention for positive behaviors, but...
  2. We'll respond to negative attention for negative behavior over being ignored.

In essence, by making "bullying behavior" the focus of our attention, we are also reinforcing that negative behavior.  We may have these rallies and put "policies" in place (which, I'm not saying aren't needed, but stick with me here), thinking that if we "raise awareness" the problem will stop.

But folks, let me tell you...the kids ARE aware. They know this behavior is wrong. These are some of the key questions I ask students in assemblies I do with them on the topic, and I can assure you that virtually every child in this country KNOWS that bullying is wrong.

All well and good you say...so what CAN we do about the problem?  I'll talk about that in my next post because, just like this is a long topic for discussion, the solution also leads to lengthy analysis.  I don't want to bore you to death with a 2000 word post. We'll talk about the upside in the bullying message next time.


If you found this post interesting and want to learn more about the problem of bullying and what to do about it, Amazon Best Seller "Breaking the Bullying Culture" can be ordered today for Kindle: get your copy here!

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  1. Joe Nutt says:

    Corinne, Almost a decade as a housemaster in a UK boarding school taught me a great deal about bullying and how to prevent it. You are of course right to point out children know it’s wrong. Further, they also know what is and is not bullying until well meaning but usually naive adults come along and confuse them. First of all, if it isn’t persistent, focused and repeated, it isn’t bullying…it’s just life!

    Secondly, there is always something, usually undiscovered, that lies at the heart of the bully’s motivation. It can be the slightest of incidents or the most traumatic of experiences, but it is usually hidden and as long as it remains hidden, the bullying is likely to continue.

    Last of all, I would advise anyone trying to solve a bullying problem to first and foremost, empower the victim. That is the surest way of all of putting a definitive end to the issue. If that isn’t possible, then the only way is to convince the bully that the consequences for them, should they continue, would outweigh the benefits…by a long, long stretch! How you do that is up to you. But unless they believe that: they are highly unlikely to stop because the rewards are just too attractive.

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