Suicides, murders, death threats, criminal charges … the discussion was not a pleasant one, but the parents who attended Barbara Coloroso’s program Monday night at Chatham High School heard the hard, cold facts about what has become a nationwide problem: Bullying.
Coloroso, a nationally recognized speaker and author of five bestselling books, gave her program three times on Monday, to students and faculty during the day, and to parents in the evening. She started her talk to parents by asking whether they reward their children.
“Kids don’t start kindergarten thinking about the rewards they will get for learning,” she said. “They do it because they want to. As we start rewarding them, they start to expect it. Bribes are just pleasant threats, and I think they bankrupt the spirit of our children.” She pointed out that parents didn’t have to bribe their children to read the Harry Potter books – they did it because they wanted to.
She said children who are praise-dependent and reward-dependent are more likely to become involved in bullying situations.
“Those are the kids that are more likely to go along with the bully when he or she says ‘I don’t like the new girl. No one sit with her at lunch.’ Your kid will do whatever he has to do to be in the bully’s inner circle.”
There are ways that parents can encourage their children without using rewards, including encouragement and feedback.
Encouragement, she said, is telling your child that if he gets to the end of the block with his training wheels slightly raised, then you’ll raise them even more, instead of giving him ice cream if he makes it to the end of the block.
Feedback, she said, takes three forms: compliments, comments and constructive criticism.
“The best compliment you can give a child is ‘thank you,’” she said. “We praise kids too much, we don’t thank them enough. Stroke the deed, not the kid. Tell the kid what the impact of his actions was. He waters the droopy plant, show him later how straight the plant is standing.”
Comments, she said, are good, solid instructions. And constructive criticism is telling the child what’s not right.
“I rarely say ‘That’s wrong,’” she said. “I say ‘that’s not right.’ I use a green pen when I grade, and I mark the answers that are correct.”
Coloroso cautioned parents on how to deal with a child’s good grades, because that will impact whether or not the child comes to the parents with bad news.
“If you make a huge deal out of an A plus, I can guarantee that you’ll go to parent’s night and find a desk full of papers that aren’t A-pluses,” she said. “They will be afraid to disappoint you. So how you deal with your child’s A-plus grade will impact if they come to you with the news that they crashed the car or broke up with their girlfriend or boyfriend, or that they have been involved in bullying.”
Conversely, parents who congratulate their child on doing something well and then show them how they can use their gift to help others, help their children to establish what Coloroso calls a “circle of caring.”
“Kids learn about a circle of caring and they are less likely to bully or take part in bullying,” she said.
Her talk then morphed into bullying itself.
“Taunting is a form of bullying,” she said. “Teasing is between friends, a lighthearted thing, a bonding thing. Taunting is different than teasing. Taunting turns into bullying. And bullying is never OK. Nothing justifies mean.”
She said it is important that youngsters know it’s OK to tell if they are bullied, or even if they witness bullying. Too often kids don’t tell simply because they’re ashamed.
“They would never do that to another kid, so they can’t figure it out,” she said. “They think it’s their fault.”
To handle a bullying situation, adults need to keep the target safe, keep the witness safe, and deal effectively with the bully. If a child tells an adult that he or she was bullied, the adult should not immediately confront the bully about it. That, Coloroso cautioned, will just make things worse for the bullied child. Instead, the adult should find out the specifics about where and when it’s happening, and catch the bully in the act.
Bullying, she said, has nothing to do with anger or conflict, and everything to do with utter contempt for another human being. Bullies dehumanize their targets.
“We fail to see the difference between conflict and bullying,” she said. “Two kids fighting, that’s a conflict. That’s normal. We must teach our youngsters that they will have conflict in their lives. Bullying is consciously getting pleasure from another person’s pain. Our kids are exposed to humor that says it’s okay to laugh at someone else’s pain. You have to put someone outside your circle of caring to not care about their pain.”
She told the parents they need to look at how they deal with other drivers, people in the grocery store, even family members who tell bigoted or other inappropriate jokes at family gatherings.
“You have to be willing to take a stand and be uncomfortable if you’re going to expect your child to,” she said.
She also spoke about cyberbullying – the use of cell phones and the internet to bully other children. She told parents that their child’s cell phone should be charged overnight in the parent’s bedroom so the parent can monitor text messages coming through overnight. She said often kids get text messages all night long, and it keeps them from sleeping, or sleeping well.
“Your children need to know they can tell you if they’ve been cyberbullied,” she said. “Most targeted kids will not tell their parents because they are afraid you’ll take their phone and internet away.”
She encouraged parents to let their kids think for themselves.
“Compliant children, when they are little are always looking for approval and want to please their parents,” she said. “When they’re older, they want to please their peers. Strong-willed children are less likely to do things just to please their peers.”
Coloroso encouraged parents to do what they could to make the Chatham community as inclusive as possible, including lots of clubs and opportunities for kids to get involved in the arts, which she called a “powerful tool” for helping children find their voice.
“I don’t want kids to be tolerant of others,” she said. “I want them to care. It is in us to care. An infant will start crying if he hears another infant crying. Toddlers will comfort each other. You have to cover that up with a lot of muck to start putting others outside your circle of care.”
She said if kids want to help the people in Haiti or Japan, parents should let them and encourage it.
“Let’s nurture that caring,” she said. “We need to nurture those things and stop in its tracks anything that will fuel hatred.”
She said adults also need to teach children how to take care of themselves, how to deal with bullies and how to heal after being bullied.
After the program, parents gathered to talk with each other, and with Coloroso, who was signing copies of her books.
“I came tonight because I have a special needs child, and I want to know how to be prepared for what could happen,” said Sarah Schwarz of Chatham.
Elena Lagunowich, also of Chatham, said the evening was eye-opening for her.
“I was glad to hear her talk about how to handle cyberbullying,” she said. “My first reaction would have been to take the cell phone and internet away. I learned better ways I could deal with that now.”
For more information on Coloroso, her books, or bullying, visit her website: www.kidsareworthit.com.