Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bully Pulpit

Turning its capricious attention to the phenomenon of bullying, the American media reported a few months ago on a spate of suicides involving teenagers, some of whom were gay, who were alleged victims of bullying from their peers. The news coverage prompted calls from the otherwise disinterested public for more attention to the problem, to include some sort of criminal prosecution for the behavior of bullying. Without offering suggestions of exactly how such behavior could be punished, especially when minors are involved, the stories fell back into obscurity in a matter of days. (1)

About twenty years ago I saw a documentary on child care as it was being practiced in three very different countries - Japan, the U.S., and Denmark. The film revealed some significant differences in cultural preconceptions about finding solutions to people's problems.

One of the things it showed was how bullying was dealt with in the three countries. In the segment filmed in a Japanese day care center, a group of preschoolers were playing when a boy who was bigger than the others started pulling the little girls' hair and stepping on the boys' fingers. Despite outbursts of tears, the Japanese teachers did not intervene or disturb the children's interaction.

When it was time for lunch, low tables were brought out and the children sat down to eat wherever they pleased. They sat together, but when the bully tried to sit with them, the other children moved away. Eventually, the bully was seen eating his lunch alone. Somehow, the children themselves had found a solution to the problem of the bully.

In the segment filmed in an American daycare center, the same situation arose when a big boy started pulling the girls' hair and pushing the other boys around. Immediately a teacher stepped between the bully and the other children, took him aside and asked him why he was being so mean to them.

When they watched this scene, Japanese viewers pointed out that the children were not being given a chance to figure the problem out for themselves and that it demonstrated to them the reason why America is such a "litigious" society. Americans, they argued, never learn how to solve their own problems, which is why there are so many policemen and lawyers and people suing one another.

Literature abounds with stories of bullying, from Tom Brown's Schooldays to Dickens' Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. They probably only appeared when society became prosperous enough to bother itself with the problems of children. It is a serious problem, but I don't think there is a better solution than that exacted by those Japanese children: making a bully face being ostracized from the group is he doesn't learn to get along.

(1) The appearance of gay celebrities like Ellen Degeneris, and a discussion on the Larry King Live television show, tried to change the argument about bullying into one about homophobia and gay-bashing in American schools.

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