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March 2008 • Adar 5768 Volume 20, No. 8, #144
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Beating the Bully at His Own Game

By Rifka Schonfeld, Director of S.O.S.

Bullying. It may be a common problem for children both in school and at camp, but it’s still heartbreaking every time I see it happen. Take Naftoli, for instance. Naftoli refuses to go to Yeshiva. He lies in bed, complaining of an imaginary stomachache. His mother, of course, knows what the real problem is. Naftoli can’t bear to face Chesky, a classmate who is making her son miserable. Ever since the school year began, he’s been teasing and taunting Naftoli at any given opportunity. And while Naftoli handled it bravely for as long as he could, his resistance finally wore down. He refuses to face his tormentor again.
What makes kids bully their peers, and how do we deal with the situation when it affects our children? These are questions that parents ask me quite often, and believe me when I say I truly sympathize with their plight. It’s sad to hear how heartless and cruel some children can be to others. It’s also sad to see how profoundly it affects the self esteem of the victim-child.
A number of studies have been conducted on the dynamics of bullying and its effect on the children involved. Some of the results may be surprising. In a recent study held at the University of Zurich (by Sonja Perren and Rainer Hornung), it was discovered that there is a connection between bullying or victim-of-bullying behavior and negative family relationships. This means that children involved in bullying are more likely to have ‘issues’ at home. The study cites “insecure family attachment or overprotective parenting styles” as possible risk factors. Other family issues associated with bullying are “lack of warmth or closeness at home, a focus on power and high aggression, and the use of physical disciplining.” (Parents, take heart. These studies are meant only to point out certain trends. Just because your child is a victim of bullying, it doesn’t mean that you’re running a dysfunctional household.)
Another study, conducted by Rene Veenstra and associates in the Netherlands indicates that boys are “overrepresented” in the role of bully in contrast to girls. (That means that there are more boy bullies than girl bullies.) However, both boys and girls are equally represented as victims. The study also states that, when they’re bullying, “boys use more physical aggression and direct bullying” whereas girl bullies resort to “name calling and social exclusion.” They conclude that “Hitting and threatening are types of bullying which are common to boys in particular. Gossiping and the taking of personal belongings are common for girls.”
Many experienced mechanchim and mechanchos will nod when they read this because they’ve seen the syndrome so often then can probably write their own studies on bullying behavior. That’s why they’re also your first line of defense. If your child is, like Naftoli, exhibiting the classic symptoms of a bully victim, don’t be embarrassed. Intervene on his or her behalf. Make an appointment to meet with the rebbe, the morah, or the menahel. They are on your side. They’ve seen this syndrome so often, they usually will know how to handle it. They have the power to effectively isolate the bully or at least to keep watch over him so as to minimize his powers. They can make subtle changes in the classroom patterns (change of seat, of chavrusa, of recess partners, etc.) that can be very helpful. They can enlist the aid of other students to help reduce the effectiveness of the bully’s taunts. Don’t think that calling the teacher is a sign of weakness or caving in. The teacher is your ally, and you need all the allies you can get to fight the bully in this battle.
Some children are singled out by one particular bully for no apparent reason. Other children are consistently designated as the victim, whether they are in camp, in school, at the local pirchei group, or in any social situation. These children need to be helped. There’s something about their dress, their demeanor, or their behavior that is drawing out this negative attention. A professional educator or social worker can work with them, drawing out reserves of self confidence or building self esteem so that they are better equipped to face the world. An educator who is familiar with the dynamics of today’s generation can make an independent evaluation of what exactly is going wrong. We all know that it’s not fair to be superficial when judging others, but the truth is that a new hairstyle, better grooming, losing a few pounds, a new wardrobe, etc. can also do wonders in helping children blend in better with the rest of their peers.
Now let’s analyze the bully himself. Let’s not let him off the hook too easily. He’s got ‘issues’ too. Too many of us tend to smile or shrug when we are confronted with a bully in our class or in our family. After all, we think to ourselves, these kids are going to be okay, aren’t they? They are outgoing and assertive. They even have a certain aura of ‘power’ and ‘authority’ which may serve them well when they are older. I’ve seen parents look upon their bully-children with a sense of pride. Believe me when I tell you there’s nothing here to be proud of.
Our society has conditioned us to consider the ‘wimp’ or the ‘neb’ as the lowest common denominator on the social stratosphere. We’ll do anything; even raise a bully if we have to, to avoid this. The Torah, of course, teaches us a completely different set of values. The character traits that we should truly aspire to are ‘ehrlichkeit’ and ‘aidelkeit’ and a quiet finesse. We have to teach our children and our talmidim that we respect the youngster with outstanding derech eretz, even if he is a little quiet and reserved. We have to look to him as a role model.
If you’re still not convinced, consider the latest scientific studies. They point out that our friend, the bully, may be looking forward to some serious ‘issues’ of his own somewhere down the road. A teen who bullies his peers may have difficulties later in life. Bullies are more likely than others to be involved in a variety of delinquent behaviors including crime, violence, harassment, threatening, excessive anger, etc. They may be popular while they’re in school (after all, everyone wants the bully to be their friend), but have difficulty maintaining relationships with others as an adult. Finally, bullies were found to have higher levels of aggressiveness and lower levels of academic performance than most of their peers.
So having a bully in your life is nothing to be proud of. And just as the parents of the victim should seek guidance from professionals, so should the bully’s parents. Perhaps there’s some underlying reason for the child’s aggressive and abusive behavior. Is there a self esteem issue that is being masked by playing ‘tough?’ These questions should be evaluated and the causes should be established. Reach out for help now, while the children are still relatively young and the problems are easier to deal with. And remember. Just as Naftoli is suffering, you can be sure that Chesky is suffering in some way as well. Bullying is not a ‘Yiddishe’ way of life and should not be encouraged. We should work on ‘saving’ the bully from himself, just as we try to save the victim from the bully.   

Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. She is a well known and highly regarded educator, having served the community for close to thirty years. As a kriyah and reading specialist, she has successfully set up reading labs in many schools and yeshivos. In addition to her diversified teaching career she offers teacher training and educational consulting services. She has extensive expertise in the field of social skills training and focuses on working with the whole child. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 (KIDS).

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