Should you tell your kids to fight bullies?

Sometimes, fighting back against bullying may be the best response.

Sometimes, fighting back against bullying may be the best response. Photo: Getty

My daughter is still so young that we deal in absolutes. ‘Don’t hit’, ‘Don’t bite’, ‘Don’t push’ I tell her. It’s a black and white world devoid of nuance. But as she approaches school age I know my days of simple and rigid rules are drawing to a close. The age of contingency and caveat will soon be upon us. My anxiety about this new world centres on bullying: what to do if my child is bullied. What to do if my child is the bully.

My own experience of being bullied at school was mercifully short compared to some who endure it for years. My bullies’ campaign lasted about four months. Brief, yes, but pungent. And problematic.  It began when I was in year seven and three girls with whom I thought I was close friends turned against me. The reversal was swift and total.

It was also co-ordinated. They would approach me in the playground from different directions and corral me. Then they would circle, exchanging taunts that they had devised earlier. They were strategic in how they did this; materialising when there were no teachers or adults around, melting away when there were. At swimming training they would kick me under the water, safe in the knowledge that they could plausibly call ‘accident’ if I complained.

It didn’t occur to me to approach an adult for help – a fact that worries the hell out of me as a parent. Childhood is such a hermetically sealed world with its own rules and conventions. Parents and other adults inhabit a parallel universe with which there are exchanges of conversation, affection and food. But it’s hard for an adult to look at a twelve year old girl and grasp just how menacing she can be. How, when you too are a twelve year old girl, she can suck the oxygen from your world until each day is just another exercise in anxiety. Even if they could have grasped it, what good would it have done me? My parents couldn’t accompany me to school, to swimming training, to dance class. I was on my own.

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I dredged my memory for something I had done to bring down this reign of terror on my head. Once, I approached one of the girls when I found her alone and asked, point blank, why she was treating me this way. She was embarrassed and claimed it was all one of the other girls’ ideas. (She was especially vicious to me in the pack attacks after I dared to confront her). I became smaller, effacing all traces of personality to make myself as invisible and inoffensive as possible. Normally voluble, I kept quiet in class, bunkering down in the library during recess and lunch. Nothing I did made any difference. There was nothing rational I could do to make the bullying stop because – I realise now - it wasn’t rational.

Here’s the part where it gets tricky.

I did eventually do something that made it stop. I belted the ring leader.

I didn’t plan to do it, but after months of stress and the total exhaustion of my ingenuity about how to change the situation I was at my wit’s end. Corralled by the girls (again), on the oval away from teachers (again) I took one step, two steps as if to start a gymnastics routine (they had expressly forbidden me to do gymnastics, my favourite thing). Rather than lowering my hand to do a cartwheel I smashed it across the ring-leader’s face. Then I did it again.

The three of them dissolved into outraged tears. Then they went straight to a teacher. I was hauled up to the principal’s office to explain myself. Then my parents were hauled up to explain themselves. My teacher ordered me to apologise. I didn’t and wouldn’t. There was an ugly black mark against my name in the adult universe. But in the universe I lived in, the childhood universe, the bullying stopped. They left me alone after that.

To this day I think I was in the right for refusing to apologise. But how to package this incident up in a way that sends the right messages to my daughter is another thing. ‘Don’t hit’, I tell her, ‘Don’t push’, ‘Don’t bite’. Soon she will be beyond my reach. Once she starts school her peer group will loom much larger to her than I do. I want to equip her to deal with the uglier side of childhood. Yet I also want her to reject violence as a solution. It’s the ifs, buts and maybes around these two propositions that are so damn difficult. Especially this one: the unpalatable idea – rejected by the Victorian Education Department -  that fighting back might be the right thing.

Sarah Jones is a writer and regulatory analyst. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Western Australia and is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking.

29 comments

  • It sounds like you were in the right, and there were times I was bullied in school where I wish I had done the same. I agree it's a very tricky situation teaching kids about violence but most sensible older kids should understand the difference between senseless violence and standing up for themselves.

    I watched the American documentary 'Bully' the other night, I highly recommend it. It's tragic but eye-opening and what was most frustrating for me to watch was how useless the teachers and some parents were at dealing with the problem. I found myself wishing some of those kids could just give their bullies a good whack since the school system did nothing for them.

    Commenter
    Mellah
    Date and time
    July 18, 2013, 12:31AM
    • In 1963 i was twelve years old and continually harassed by a senior student from the same school on the train home. My older brother, also a senior, did not intervene but did give me one piece of advice, aim for his nose, he said.
      I have not hit anyone since that bloody encounter, and never saw that bloke again. Later in life as a teacher, i witnessed both schoolyard justice and bullying, both of which i was bound to intervene, in neither case satisfactorily.
      Physically there might not seem to be much difference between delivering justice and being a bully, but emotionally and philosophically, they are worlds apart. Difficult concepts for any of us to grasp and explain, thanks.

      Commenter
      John Gui
      Location
      Tas
      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 8:07AM
      • Totally agree on the difficulty of the situation, wanting to raise children who understand violence is not the answer, and yet are able to defend themselves when necessary. Faced with a similar, but physical, situation at day care, I was regularly asked to sign 'incident reports' acknowledging I had been informed of the latest cause of my sons bumps, bruises and scratches. Of course, they could never tell me WHO had caused them, just that it was through a bit of rough play. My son always told me it was the same boy. My son and I often discussed the options available to him, like walking away, saying 'stop I don't like it', or reporting to the carers, but the incidents continued. Finally I sat him down and explained the last option, physical response. I explained it was not right, but sometimes necessary, to fight violence with violence, and if he felt like he couldn't get away, that he had my support to be physical back. The big rule, he could only do it once. I then explained to the carers that I was sick of signing incident reports for harm done to my child, so I had instructed him to fight back, once. I told them that if something occurred, and my son snotted the other kid, not to bother calling me, unless it happened a second time. Since then, no fights, no harm and no incident reports. The real answer of course was in the open communication between us all, easier with a 4 year old then a 12 year old, and my telling the carers my son had permission to get physical if needed. Saying that, I still remember him standing a good deal taller when I'd given him permission to be physical, if pushed.

        Commenter
        Adam
        Location
        Maribyrnong
        Date and time
        July 18, 2013, 8:21AM
        • Speaking from experience the bulling stopped when I stood up for myself and got the better of the bully. Never had a problem after a decent right hook to his face. Any regrets? Of course I do, should have done it sooner and a lot younger and perhaps harder. Speaking from a guy’s sense the only way to stop it is to make people scared to bully you. Perfect example that Casey that body slammed that dude, I would have money on the fact no one would come near or say anything to him now. The only thing Casey did wrong was the he didn’t finish the job.

          Commenter
          DD
          Location
          Melb
          Date and time
          July 18, 2013, 9:10AM
          • Remember when this video came out?

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isfn4OxCPQs

            A group of nasty little bullies approached another boy (Casey) in a targeted attack. One bully videoed with his phone, while others stood around taunting Casey and laughing at him. One boy repeatedly punched Casey in the face. You can hear Casey asking him to stop, several times, before he finally just retaliates and grabs the little bugger, turns him upside down and throws him to the ground.

            I could have cheered for Casey. He tried a non-violent solution, but when that failed, he defended himself.

            Problematically, the school decided to suspend Casey, the victim, as well as the perpetrators. As though their behaviour was equivalent. As though defending yourself is the same thing as stalking another child in packs, and physically attacking them for no reason.

            Then, as though this wasn't insulting enough, the parents of the bully complained to the media that Casey was bigger and shouldn't have fought back as he could have really hurt their son... no reference to the fact that their son *approached another child for no reason and with no provocation, punched him repeatedly in the face*.

            Despite all the hand wringing in the media, incidents like this show that bullying is not taken seriously. I applaud any person who stands up and gives a bully a taste of their own medicine.

            Commenter
            Red Pony
            Date and time
            July 18, 2013, 9:23AM
            • I LOVED THAT VIDEO. Man i loved it. I hope the kid's broken leg aches and twinges on him every time he wants to bully anybody for the rest of his mean little life. Or goodness me, perhaps he learned something? Not with parents like that though, somehow i doubt it. He behaviour on film is proven to be mean and bullying and his parents blame the victim. Way to go.

              Commenter
              Spender
              Date and time
              July 18, 2013, 10:12AM
            • I think the problem with the Casey episode was that the method of fighting back seemed disproportionate to the original bullying. Copping a bunch of punches to the head is not much fun (I should know, I was on the receiving end at school a couple of times) but it's pretty unlikely to do any serious long term damage. The way the bully got body slammed though could very easily have broken his neck and left him paralysed.

              Please note I'm not saying that Casey shouldn't have fought back, I've got no problem with that whatsoever. There is however a difference between some punches to the head and pile driving someone with a chance of breaking their neck. It would have been better in my opinion if he had responded in the same way, ie punching hte otherr kid instead of picking him up and driving him into the ground.

              Commenter
              Hurrow
              Date and time
              July 18, 2013, 10:29AM
            • I've been in very similar situations to Casey in my life. Unless those in charge at his school were/are completely inept with children, they very likely took a similar approach - suspend all involved in the incident as part of a zero tolerance policy, but called Casey aside beforehand to explain why he needed to be included in the punishment, agree that it is not necessarily fair, but that they cannot be sending a message that violent recourse is acceptable, even if in this particular scenario there was little that could have been done otherwise.

              One week you publicly applaud a child like Casey for defending himself, the next you have a kid king-hitting someone because they called him smelly.

              I actually appreciated the honesty, and that they considered me mature enough to recognise why it needed to be done.

              Commenter
              Markus
              Location
              Canberra
              Date and time
              July 18, 2013, 10:40AM
            • @ Hurrow

              Punching someone in the face can break their skull. It can break their nose or jaw, or knock out teeth. It can result in blindness from a detached retina, or even result in brain damage. If you knock them over or out, they can fall and hit the back of their head, killing them. I don't see that as being any safer than what Casey did.

              In any event, you think the school would have responded any differently? They would have made the exact same argument, which boiled down in essence to, it doesn't matter what they have done to you, you have no right to defend yourself physically. Their position apparently was that Casey should have continued to stand there and take a beating.

              I have absolutely no sympathy for the child who was thrown, and I don't think that any injuries to his person would have changed that. I hope he learned a lesson about what happens when you attack another person. You are not guaranteed safety.

              Commenter
              Red Pony
              Date and time
              July 18, 2013, 10:50AM
            • @Hurrow being as how the bullied kid was not used to physically fighting, it was probably the first time he had fought back in his life, he did what he could. The frustration came out and he just did one reaction. You cannot expect the bullied kid to moderate his reaction to cause only little injury, he just cracked and smashed the kid. He didn't keep smashing him. He just did one smash. Bravo to him.

              Commenter
              Spender
              Date and time
              July 18, 2013, 11:31AM

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