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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > April 2012 > How to Solve the Bully Problem
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How to Solve the Bully Problem

by Rev. Robert Barron

It is very difficult indeed to watch the new documentary “Bully” without experiencing both an intense sadness and a feeling of helplessness. The film opens with the heartbreaking ruminations of a father whose son committed suicide after being brutally bullied by his classmates.

We hear a number of similar stories throughout the film, and we also are allowed to watch and listen as very real kids are pestered, belittled, mocked, and in some cases, physically assaulted; just because they are; in some sense; different. The most memorable figure in the movie is a young man, around 12, named Alex. He seems to be a good-natured kid, happy in the embrace of his family, but because he’s a bit uncoordinated, geeky, and odd-looking (his brutal nickname is “fishface”), his fellow students mercilessly pick on him. Alex’s daily ride on the school bus is like something out of Dante’s Inferno.

What would be funny; if it weren't so tragic, is the cluelessness of the school officials (and of the adults in general) who should be doing something about the problem. We get to watch the vice principal of Alex’s school as she deals with aggressive students, and as she tries to mollify Alex’s parents. What we hear is a pathetic mixture of bromides, self-serving remarks, boys-will-be-boys platitudes, and; worst of all, a marked tendency to blame the victim. When the parents complain about the bus that Alex rides, the vice principal vapidly comments, “Well, I rode that bus once, and the children were like angels.” I mean, is she really naïve enough to think that their behavior in the presence of the vice-principal is even vaguely typical? I will admit, however, that I sympathized with her confusion when, at one point, she gazed into the camera lens and sighed, “I just don't know what to do.” A lot of the adults in the documentary seemed to share that sentiment.

Well, I know someone who knows what to do. Some time ago, I reviewed a book by Dr. Leonard Sax called "Why Gender Matters," an incisive study of why boys and girls benefit from very different approaches to education and character formation. Just recently, Dr. Sax sent me a copy of his 2007 study titled "Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men." As the subtitle indicates, the book examines the problem of the "slacker dude," the teenager who would rather watch video games than attend class, or the 20-something who would rather lounge around his parents’ home than start an ambitious career. To get all of the details, please peruse Dr. Sax’s informative and eminently readable book in its entirety.

But with the problem of bullying in mind, I would like to focus on one chapter of Boys Adrift; titled “The Revenge of the Forsaken Gods.” Echoing in many ways the reflections of Joseph Campbell and Richard Rohr, Dr. Sax bemoans the fact that our culture has largely forgotten the subtle art of transforming boys into men. Despite (or perhaps because of) our scientific predilection, we think that this process just happens naturally. Our “primitive” ancestors knew that it did not and this is why they developed sophisticated rituals of initiation, designed to shock boys out of their natural narcissism and habits of self-protection into moral and spiritual maturity.

Whether we are talking about the Navajo, Masai warriors, or Orthodox Jews, traditional cultures understand that boys have to be brought through a period of trial—some test of skill and endurance—during which they learn the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice. Sometimes; these initiation rituals are accompanied by a kind of ceremonial scarring, for the elders want the boys to know, in their bodies, that they’ve been tested and permanently changed. Sax astutely observes that many of the great American authors—Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Studs Terkel, James Dickey—wrote passionately and persuasively about this very topic. Any great films, from “The Hustler,” “On the Waterfront,” and “Rebel Without a Cause” to “Braveheart” and “Gladiator,” dramatically display the process by which a boy becomes a heroic man of selflessness and courage.

The principal element in the initiation process—whether real or fictionally presented—is a mature man who embodies the virtues to which the boy aspires. Finally, men of valor, charity, ambition, and grace transform boys into men of valor, charity, ambition and grace. When this mentoring dynamic is lost, Dr. Sax argues, the result is boys adrift and young men taking their cues from Eminem, 50 Cent, Akon, and the Situation.

Now you might be wondering what all this has to do with the phenomenon of bullying. One reason why boys turn into bullies is that they have no one around to turn them into men. Boys are filled with energies meant to be channeled in a positive direction, toward protecting the innocent and building up the society. Without strong male role models, and without a disciplined process of initiation into maturity, these energies remain either unfocussed (as in the case of slackers) or directed toward violence and the exploitation of the weak (as in the case of bullies). Dr. Sax comments that you might not be able to turn a bully into a flower child, but with the right male mentoring, you could certainly turn him into a knight.

If a son of yours is either bullied or becoming a bully, I would strongly recommend that you read "Boys Adrift" and, above all, that you introduce your son to a strong, morally upright, focused and courageous male mentor—fast.
Posted: 4/26/2012 12:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 7 comments


Comments
Gregory Rodriguez
I am a Catholic Christian therapist, whose primary population is boys averaging 16-24. The Father wound as well as a lack of a transformative process of entering into manhood is a huge piece of my work. It was a enormous deficit in my life and I have not only read through many of the books, but have attended workshops and retreats seeking my vision of amnhood. My journey has been a helpful tool in leading many of teh men adn boys I see in the counsleing process as well
5/3/2012 1:42:56 PM
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Irene
Dear Fr Barron,
In your thought provoking and excellent article on the serious problem of bullying, there is one thing I strongly react to, though; whenever this plague, for ex in schools, are discussed, we always, without exception whatsoever, at least to my knowledge, about "kids who are... different". The key word is: DIFFERENT. Let me just tell you that during ALL my school years, the one(s) who were the most targeted were NOT those"different". As a contrast, I vividly remember how one the most beautiful and attractive girls in the school, aso very talented and overall very intelligent the best marks, a great singer(she later became a professional singer, was bullied, never physically, but in a much more "sophisticated" way, as only very envious girls(and women!) are experts of.And, yes, there are some boys as well, suffering from a poor self confidence, and or an inferiority complex, especially in rel.to girls. This young girl was ALWAYS the subject of the most unimaginable envy and, yes, even hatred, later on in life, by grown women, many of them middle aged. Today, this girl is herself a grown up woman, in her late 50's, still very attractive and still causing not so few women and even some men, to calumnate her, or in some way or other attack her wonderful talents, trying to decrease or belittle her great gifts, etc. After over 30 years of experience from a number of work places, I have never, ever, noticed that ANY of the (not so few) "different looking" me or women (what you really mean is: unattractive, or more explicitly, ugly) were being bullied. And I am a very observing person. The lady in question is aways nice and gentle with people and, thanks to God, many people see and feel this, as always when something is genuine, she has very good friends, a wonderful husband. My point is: why do people in general ALWAYS use the word "different", in this context? Well, if someone is bullied because they are unusually attractive and talented, well, then I understand. But you would do young girls and women in general, suffering from bullying beacause of the above mentioned reasons, a great favour, if you would call things for what they raelly are; namely, that beauty, much more often than "ugliness" has caused nameless sufferings in schools.However, as long as you all pretend that this only is a matter of being "different", in a negative way, all these victims, like my beautiful class mate in my school, will continue to suffer- in secret, since who would even think of trying to tell your headmaster or your boss, that you are being bullied beacause you are- beautiful (and talented). Just imagine the grin on their face;"who does she think she is??!!"
From godless, ignorant people, unfortunately, one cannot expect too much, but from catholics, especially catholic priets, we want to hear the TRUTH and nothing but the truth.After all, this is not very complicated theology, is it? Isn't it interesting, as well as disturbing, that everyone, including priests, seemingly are comforted by the thought that nobody can be bullied if they are beautiful and talented?
God bless you all!

Irene
5/7/2012 6:30:10 PM
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edita
wanted to comment on irene's message... i think the word "different" doesn't only apply to someone who's "geeky" or ugly. i don't see why there is a need to argue about the "TRUTH." there isn't anything false about the article.
5/18/2012 4:11:03 PM
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Jackie
I have not seen the movie "Bully," but the comments about the school administration is all too familiar with what my family has been experiencing at the only all-girls Catholic middle school in Milwaukee. My twin daughters (one more so than the other) have experienced bullying for four years. Because kids are so young and, maybe instinctively (and despite strong family bonds), felt trapped in talking about their problem. There were occassions when things would come and we addressed them to the school with the ususa, "oh, yeah, we'll take care of it," only to find out later that nothing was done. But not until October 2011 when one of my daughters was pushed so far that it had to come out and all was revealed to our family. The reaction of both the "Sister" who is the principal as well as the president was an overall, "this didn't happen - do you know what I mean - this DIDN'T happen!" The blames was placed on my daughter even after a leading doctor who specializes in pain (my daughter was experiencing extreme migraines due to stress/bullying) sent a letter to the school, both the "sister" and the president still blame my daughter saying she has to "toughen up." Only yesterday a blatant display of harrassment occurred which consisted on one girl calling an entire group of girls a "H_" and emphasizing her words at my daughter. The "sisters" words, "well, I don't know that it happened," and, "this isn't the school for you." The president said something to the effect, "I didn't say your daughter has a problem (in Oct. she tried to hint that my daughter had a mental illness)you have the problem." When I asked her what is my problem, she said, "I won't say right now." It is my opinion that the real problem is with the adults in the bullying problem. There are two many parents that do not correct or acknowledge when their kids are wrong and then there are the people like the "sister" and her cohort that do not want their school to have to acknowledge that the kids are not the little angels they base their fundraising on. And because they go through the motions of settig up a "bullying program," but refuse to ackowledge the principles of the program - they seem to make everything ok with themselves. No doubt the bullying programs are in place to say, "oh, look, our program works - we have no incidents of bullying here." Really? I urge everyone to believe in their children and trust in their own children when they say they are hurting. Few school administrators (not necessarily teachers) have the real interest of a child's well-being in mind as they run their schools - only $$$ matters.
5/25/2012 10:51:39 AM
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Fr. Thomas Hennigan
Response to Irene:
It doesn't seem that Fr. Barron implies that only the kids who are perceived as different are vitims of bulllying. The fact that he mentions the case of those who are different doesn't mean that he considers that they are the only victims of bullying.
6/22/2012 7:37:07 PM
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John Pater
Fr. Barron,

Thanks for your reference to Leonard Sax. I picked up and read both of those books you mentioned. They offer a greater perspective of my children then I had before.
6/27/2012 3:12:04 PM
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Sam
Bullying Requires Non-Education Professionals Bullying requires non-education prenossiofals to step in.Unfortunately, education prenossiofals, as experienced as theyare and have to be with education-related matters, do not havethe know-how or experience needed to deal with radicallyuncontrolled bullying. However, there are police (men and women), psychologists (men and women), and therapists (men and women) who are not in the business of education; but who are trained to deal with the deviant behavior expressed by a true bully. A 1-800 number for bully victims that is easy to remember should be plastered everywhere in schools from the classrooms to the halls to the restrooms to the playgrounds to the busses and athletic fields as gentle reminders to students thinking of getting out of line (bullying). This no-nonsense number would direct the bully victim to immediate help by trained prenossiofals who will evaluate professionally the bully's mental health and stable or unstable home situation; deal with the bully's deviant behavior; and help the bully victim through the merciless trauma/abuse he/she experienced all without repercussions to the actual victim. Of course, legal action and prosecution against the bully (not the school) go without saying. As an added incentive, the school administration may dial the number from the school office. Often, but not always, the bully is a repeat offender. Reporting the crime helps authorities build a case against said bully in court holding the bully accountable for his/her actions.
7/9/2012 6:35:50 AM
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