Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bullying to stop bullying.

Not long after our son Nico was born and diagnosed with Down Syndrome, we began sharing the news with our community of friends and family. Frequently, people found a way to express their concerns by talking about bullying. I've spent years thinking about why that is, how the mental space occupied in people's minds by "Down Syndrome" = bullying.

It's a real problem and one I worry about too, but I worry more about Nico's ability to talk, his health, what happens when he turns 21, what happens when I die.  Bullying isn't anywhere near the top of my list of concerns. But it is on the list.

At any rate, there's more to write about here later, as I think the focus on bullying reveals some important things about agency and representation of the disabled in our culture.

But today's post focuses on Central, LA, and the story of a father who decided to teach his son not to bully kids with special needs, by bullying him.

One Central father used a little public humiliation to teach his son an important lesson over the weekend.
Tim Bandy and his son Alliance spent an hour of their day Sunday in front of Central High School in an attempt to teach the six year-old a very important lesson.
"I drew a sign up, front and back, and stood him on the side of the road in Central where he goes to school. The sign read 'I will not bully or pick on kids with special needs.’ And he stood out there for about an hour," explained Bandy of the interesting punishment.
Bandy expanded on the punishment:
"Quit being a follower, be a leader. If it's right, it's right. If it's wrong, it's wrong. Make your own decisions, because if you follow everybody else it's going to get you nowhere. And like I told him, 'where's all your friends at that were doing the same thing? They’re at home playing, church, whatever they do on Sunday, and you're here standing on the side of the road looking like a fool,” added Bandy.
Bandy agreed that some parents may find his method a little extreme, but he cautioned them to not knock it until you try it.
“What’s more extreme? Doing that? They get in trouble, whoop him? Taking all of his stuff away? I mean, it's an hour of his time. It doesn't hurt him. It might hurt his feelings, but I am still alive, I’ve had my feelings hurt quite a bit," said Bandy.
I know the father meant well. He wants to be an ally. I'm glad he thinks his son's bullying is important enough to require this kind of punishment. It might even be effective in changing behavior. I always wonder what I would say to a parent whose child bullied my son, or, for that matter, my daughter.

But what does the son end up learning? He learns that his father can humiliate him publicly. He learns that children with special needs are to be protected. Does this shift his understanding of disability? Does he learn to see people with special needs as people, as whole people, with whom he can engage and form relationships? Does anything change other than the boy being afraid of future humiliations? I don't think so.

And I can't help but dig into the father's quote: His three strategies are: Take away his things, humiliate him, or "whoop" him. These are effective strategies, and sometimes I take things away from my kids when those things are enabling mis-behavior. But I know it's never my best parental strategy. At my best, I create positive rewards which they have to earn through good behavior; ideally, the rewards are directly linked to the behavior, but just a star system (do good things, get stars, trade stars for dessert/TV) can work wonders.

At the core, the challenge facing this father is how to teach empathy to his son. That's a tough one and there may be no more important job for a caregiver.

Ultimately, I don't think you teach empathy through shared suffering, but through shared joy.