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.

15 comments:

  1. I can't help but think this is ultimately about Dad's ego. He's putting on a very public display that doesn't really do anything except attempt to signal information about what a great parent he is.

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    1. I totally disagree. I think dad did a great job in teaching this child a valuable lesson. My only problem is I don 't think it should say ..."I will not bully or pick on other people." That the child he bullied has special needs is immaterial. I guarantee this child will always remember this discipline and think about it next time he is tempted to be a bully.

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    2. I don't mind anonymous comments, but please sign it with a name (doesn't have to be real) so we can call you something. It's a problem with Blogger, I know.

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  2. He will always remember that his father bullied and shamed him, and he will remember that people can do that to people who are weaker. That is the lesson he has learned.

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    2. First of all, I do think trying to create familiarity/empathy for the two kids is a far better approach than an embarrassing sign.

      But in any interaction, there can be any number of dynamics at play -- it's not sensible to consider every one of them to be "the lesson", even if it is one possible lesson a person could draw from it. I agree with Anonymous; if the father is otherwise loving and supportive, this lesson could truly be about bullying. Kids aren't always great at nuance, but neither are they oblivious to it.
      To say that the lesson he's taken is that some people are more powerful than others, well, he already knows that, and furthermore it's something that's useful to know. To say it's about shame -- well, one man's shame is another man's embarrassment and accountability.
      To suggest that those are the only lessons here is like saying that when your kids see you get a traffic ticket, "the lesson" is that a badge and a uniform are for inconveniencing others...

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  3. I would prefer it if he were to arrange WITH his son to actually interact with people with various disabilities and physical issues over an extended period of time. The young man would possibly get past the discomfort of unfamiliarity he has.....this is more likely the drive (along with peer pressure).

    I was quite burned as a young child. The scars were awful. People tried to stare without staring (I'm sure you all know this one). I was already embarrassed. It just made it worse. The other kids were stand-offish...I think mainly because they did not know how to approach it.

    My sister-in-law had spina-bifida. She was very clear with us- if I fall, do not help me. Why? Not her misplaced pride but you could hurt her and she knew how to get up. So we had to learn to just stand there- no matter what the by-standers thought of us.

    Respectful approach is what many of us would like parents to teach their children. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks. I agree that actual interaction is the best path here.

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  4. I can't say anything as far as the actual punishment goes as I haven't been a parent long enough to have to have dealt with anything other than throwing food on the floor from the highchair or trying to love bubble guppies with such intensity that the television is going to tip over. However, I will say that I hope this stuff never enters my mind when my kid is older as a valid parenting strategy, since it does stink of enforcing all of the wrong lessons (also, it's just mean, and I hope I never want to be mean to my kid).

    What I do have all kinds of weighty opinions about though are the sign, the blatant Othering of the ideology behind the sign, and the uncontested assumptions implicit in the sign (much like the initial assumptions of your friends and family). This sign makes me afraid for my kid as it sets her apart not as her unique self, but as, like you say, someone to be protected, simply by virtue of this one genetic thing in her, while simultaneously as someone who is naturally bullied, someone who is weak and not expected, or really even allowed, to stand up for herself. The sign explicitly saying 'special needs' and not for example 'those who are different from me' (which would be pretty much everyone else on earth) or just 'on others' underlines that my kid is still, in 2013, seen as the charity case, the weakest of the weak. And that can not be a good thing.

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    1. Thank you for this. It works through some of the stuff I hadn't really articulated (to myself, let alone to others) yet.

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  5. Anna

    I disagree, I believe the only thing that should have changed was the special needs part, it should say I will not bully. After an hour of this then having him volunteer in an agency with people of all abilities so he sees first hand that we are more similar than different.

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  6. One other thing: every kid is different. The strategy that works for one will be completely ineffective for another one.
    You can model and affirm great behavior all you like, and most kids will still occasionally do selfish, foolish things.
    I almost never spanked my kids -- maybe a half-dozen times, and only for things things like running into the street, life or death lessons they had to learn immediately and unequivocally.
    Most of the time I just imposed logical consequences, along the lines of "You made a mistake -- doesn't mean you're a bad person, but it does mean you have to clean up your mess."
    But looking back, I honestly wish I had spanked them more and reasoned with them less. I feel like by taking the time to explain for the Nth time why X had consequence Y, and seeing them do the math in their head (ie, "Hmmm. Feels worth it to me..."), I unconsciously created in them a sense of entitlement and self-importance that didn't serve them well as teenagers. Employee "logical consequences" often can't address the cost to everyone else in the family unit. Kids are NOT entitled to cause disruption to everyone around them -- especially the people who are providing them with love and care and clothing and food and shelter and education and cetera -- the tail's wagging the dog.
    I wish I had said sometimes [paraphrased] "You don't seem to be interested in understanding the consequences of your actions, and you're not making good decisions in this area. Your choice here is costing the rest of us. We don't have the time, the resources, the obligation, or the inclination to support this behavior -- if it happens again I will warm your backside. Any questions?"
    Without that threat, the lesson some kids take is that their desires and impulses are more important than those of the entire rest of the family, since their choices both inconvenience the entire family in the first place, and then take up additional time as we patiently explain the consequences for the Nth time.
    I wish I had said sometimes "Ain't nobody got time for this nonsense. Knock it off or else."

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