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Should Kids Be Taught To Fight Back?

Press Release – Should Kids Be Taught To Fight Back?

Another comment on the scissor attack

Opinion from John Cowan, The Parenting Place

It sounds like the boy who stabbed another student with scissors this week had been the victim of bullying. I don’t know, but maybe he was also the victim of bad adult advice: “Fight back!”

From The Chuck Norris School of Parenting comes the advice, “If you’re bullied, just hit him back!” It’s the heroic scene in a thousand stories: the plucky little kid bloodies the nose of the cowardly big bully who never troubles him again. Who can argue with Winston Churchill or the Karate Kid? Well, actually, I’d like to argue with them… but please don’t hit me.

There are no magic bullets to fix bullying, but there are some strategies that give good results: treating bullying seriously, supportive schools and parents, inspiring a better culture amongst children and giving skills to kids to avoid bullying. Good bully-bouncing strategy means being assertive, able to refuse pressure and carrying yourself with dignity. It also helps to have a teflon coated ego, to deflect taunts with courageous humour and to have the confidence to walk away – these are great strategies. But if escape is not an option then self-defence is perfectly logical – fight if you are attacked and cannot get away. I support that. What I don’t support is when adults coach their kids not to get away from the bully and instead encourage them to fight, even to attack first.

The advice to ‘make your stand’ is based on the anecdotal evidence that kids who fight back don’t get bullied again. The trouble with anecdotes is ‘confirmation bias’: you hear of the successes but not the failures and it only works when someone has enough size and confidence to fight back. I would argue, if they can match the bully then that’s not bullying, that’s just a fight. In real bullying the victim is outnumbered or smaller, lacks confidence and is unlikely to have the support of his peers. For those kids, telling them that they should fight back is going to be beyond their ability and just add to their sense of shame. A boy I know who was told to fight back by his father – which wasn’t an option for him – he said it just made him feel bullied by his Dad as well.

In stories, ‘good guys’ always win fights. Reality is different. There is no justice in fighting. The best fighter wins fights, and bullies usually have the edge. There are plenty of stories where fighting back leads to them getting injured more and also stories where fighting back goes wrong. A now famous Australian viral video shows Casey Heynes retaliating against his aggressor by slamming him onto concrete in a move that could have seriously injured his attacker which would have blighted the lives of both kids; as it is, both got into a lot of trouble. And maybe the whole idea is flawed anyway: Australian psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg also cites research that shows kids who retaliate get victimised more in the long run. Revenge escalates.

So fighting back probably won’t work, and in the process it will get them injured and in trouble with schools and the law. But… isn’t meeting violence with violence just human nature? Of course, but what’s so great about this aspect of human nature? ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a scary book precisely because we KNOW we are seeing human nature portrayed. Without adult supervision and adult rules, childhood is savage. Kids deserve to be defended by mature authority. The ‘Law of the Jungle’ is for jungles and our school playgrounds shouldn’t be jungles. Our responsibility is to provide a decent society for our kids – bullying nearly always takes place when kids are outside of adult protection and care.

As I said, there no quick-fix solutions to bullies, but a scan of anti-bullying websites and experts working with bullied kids shows a solid consensus in opposition to fighting back. What these experts and sites do offer is a range of strategies to eliminate bullying culture in schools, to give resilience and skills to kids to deflect bullying. They have proven effectiveness, but they certainly don’t have the dramatic appeal of “…and so I punched him in the mouth and he never bothered me again!”


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