The reasons for the failure of antibullyism should be obvious to any serious student of interpersonal dynamics. It is contrary to almost everything we learn in psychology and the psychological helping professions, yet it has been eagerly embraced by all the major psychological organizations. It has amazed me that so few professionals have noticed what’s wrong with the anti-bully field despite its obvious failure. A few years ago, the first book to have a chapter criticizing the anti-bully movement was published. That book was Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, by British developmental psychologist Helene Guldberg. Now, thanks to Dr. Porter, there is an entire book dedicated to exposing the damage caused by this destructive movement.
Porter is a PhD clinical psychologist and educator with two and a half decades experience working in schools. She has perceptively recognized that all childhood aggression has been redefined as “bullying,” effectively throwing in the trashcan the entire body of accumulated knowledge on aggression and how to deal with it. Because the bullying paradigm of aggression has been mandated by law, all schools are now required to treat every act of aggression as a drama in which all children are cast in the roles of bully, victim, bystander or ally. With plentiful real-life scenarios, Porter demonstrates how anti-bullying policies are hurting the very students, parents and schools they are meant to help. As the subtitle accurately indicates, they are bad for everyone. Not only do these policies intensify hostilities, they actually hurt children’s emotional development, depriving them of the conditions they need to develop coping skills and raising them to be lacking in resilience, vulnerable to the most minute insults.
The most disturbing revelation of the book is how the anti-bully movement has legitimized free expression of hatred towards anyone labeled bully. A news article reported a story in which a teenage boy, labeled a bully by the writer without explaining how it was determined he was a bully, was stabbed to death by his “victim.” In response, many adults left comments expressing their perverse satisfaction with the murder, declaring that the bully "got what he deserved." Indeed, all it takes to justify murder is to label its victim a bully.
Bully Nation is an overdue call for society to throw out the detrimental Bully Language and instead help children develop the resilience needed to handle the social challenges of life. It is essential reading for all parents, educators and mental health professionals. Before your school staff continues to squander precious time and resources on counterproductive anti-bullying efforts, they must read this book. Our children deserve no less.
Interview with Susan Eva Porter, PhD
IK: How did it occur to you that there was a problem with the anti-bullying movement?
SEP: A number of years ago, I started to notice that adults were getting really angry with the kids labeled as bullies. Because I have spent my career working in schools, when I deal with incidents of childhood aggression I tend to know all of the children involved. As such, I know that the dynamics are never clear-cut and that blame can’t be as easily assigned--there isn’t one good kid and one bad kid. Nevertheless, adults had started using what I call Bully Language, and things had started to seem simple: a victim and a bully and no chance for another interpretation of events. Adults had become furious at the “bullies” and never seemed to pause to examine their own reactions—the bully label gave them license to unleash a great deal of their own rage upon the children, and to remain unrepentant in their stance as accusers.
This lead me to think more deeply about how we are seeing kids, especially the ones we call bullies, and whether our language—the labels, in particular—shape our perception. As I investigated anti-bullying education and literature, I was struck by how concrete and definitive the concepts are, which gave me pause. I would watch my colleagues try to deal with bullying incidents according to the received anti-bully “wisdom” and remain feeling stuck, but this state of being stuck made sense to me given how rigid our conceptual framework about childhood aggression had become.
So, from my own experience working in schools as an educator and a clinician I knew something wasn’t working, and I wanted to figure out why.
IK: Have you encountered any resistance to your ideas? If so, who has been the most resistant?
SEP: Yes, I have met with resistance, although it seems to soften once people understand that I’m not suggesting children can’t be mean and behave inappropriately. In fact, I’m a firm believer in consequences, so once people understand that I am in favor of discipline they seem more open to hearing my ideas.
I sense the greatest resistance comes from those who feel like victims themselves, and also from those who might not understand childhood development.
IK: Do state mandates affect the way the school(s) you work in deal with bullying?
SEP: Absolutely, both directly and indirectly. Obviously schools are eager to follow the rules, and this makes sense, but beyond the actual policies, no school wants to be seen as being soft on bullying. As such, many educators are wary of using their own common sense practices to deal with situations of childhood aggression for fear they will be called onto the carpet for ignoring bullying. This is really unfortunate because it limits the degree to which schools can be responsive to children in need. For many, the priority has become to comply with a regulation rather than to educate children.
IK: What kind of popular response do you expect to your book?
SEP: I strongly believe that if people actually read it, it will resonate with a large number of them for a number of reasons.
First, the conversation about bullying is stalled, and people are looking for hope. They want to understand why they feel so scared and frustrated, and why the anti-bullying policies we have in place don’t work.
And second, people are looking for permission to question the received wisdom. Many people I know are afraid to challenge the anti-bullying movement for fear of being misunderstood or of being seen as “blaming the victim.” This keeps them silenced, and I believe my book will allow them to participate in a broader conversation.
IK: What do you think about anti-bullying laws?
SEP: Laws are enacted by legislators, not educators, and as such they are not tools of instruction, which is what children need when it comes to learning about their own aggression and how to manage it productively. So, on this score I think the laws are unnecessary at best and very harmful at worst. In addition, we haven’t paused to ask ourselves what it means for our future as a society to legislate our children’s behavior. In doing so, we’re making outlaws of many children, and this is extremely troubling in so far as it negatively shapes our view of children and their potential.
We have enacted anti-bullying laws because we are angry with children and feel frustrated that we can’t control their behavior. We also see laws as a means to prevent children from feeling pain, and for punishing kids who cause pain. This isn’t a very effective way to address any of these issues, and yet we believe that laws will finally put a stop to our suffering. They won’t, they will only make us feel worse—less in control and even angrier.
Given that children haven’t changed in the past generation, it is odd that we’re walking down this legalistic path, and it tells us much more about us than it does about our kids. Why do we feel the need to deal with these developmental issues in the courts rather than educationally or therapeutically? Would we teach kids about any other subject by legislating against them when they made mistakes? It just doesn’t make sense if what we want to do is help and guide children.
IK: Your arguments against the anti-bullying movement make so much sense. Have you wondered why the major psychological organizations have been so eagerly promoting this movement?
SEP: I am a licensed mental health professional, so I am a member of this group, and I think the reason the anti-bullying movement gets so much support is threefold.
First, psychologists and other clinicians are very interested in pain and suffering, and there's no doubt that children experience pain and suffering at each other's hands. This is undisputed, and clinicians are trained to take this very seriously, which is a good thing. Because the anti-bullying movement focuses so much on pain and suffering, it makes sense that clinicians have rallied around.
Second, most clinicians do not work in schools, so they naturally hear just one side of the story when they deal with bullying situations. It’s akin to hearing just one side of the story of a troubled marriage. It’s not until you have both spouses in the room that you get the whole picture. Those of us who work with kids in schools necessarily have a broader perspective and know that the simplicity with which the anti-bully movement assigns blame just doesn’t bear out in the real world of childhood.
Finally, I think clinicians feel as helpless as the rest of us, and so they’ve embraced the movement without thinking about it too critically. Most clinicians are just that—they are practitioners—and they aren’t necessarily interested in the larger issues that are at play.
I hope clinicians can entertain my ideas with an open mind because I truly believe that when they think differently about childhood aggression they will be able to do their jobs more effectively. A sea change in thinking will enable clinicians to empower their young clients and give parents better tools to support their children.
IK: Do you think the anti-bullying movement is a fad, or is it here to stay?
SEP: I am working hard to make it a fad, as I know you are. If it’s here to stay, then I think we’re in real trouble.
IK: How did you come up with the title, Bully Nation?
SEP: For starters, I think bullying is affecting the whole nation—we’re all in this muck together. And I also believe we’re doing a great disservice to children at the moment. We are not behaving well, and although we have our children’s best interests at heart, we’re not using our heads to deal with their challenges. Our feelings have swept us away and at the moment we are quite off base as a society. Bully Nation seemed to capture for me the momentum that’s out there, and the rage.
IK: Is there anything else you would like to let the readers know?
SEP: I think your work is groundbreaking. It has greatly informed my own understanding of this whole issue. I believe all of us can work together to empower children but we have to be smarter about it, and I think you’re being smart.
I hope you continue to get the message out—it’s an important one, and I want to recognize your efforts to help kids, parents, and educators to deal with our current cultural frenzy in a sensible and effective manner.
IK: Thanks, Dr. Porter, for the kind words!
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