There is no doubt that assertiveness repels bullying. I also have no problem with people protecting themselves if they are attacked and they can’t escape. But the ‘old school’ advice to kids is to do more than just defend yourself – you should actually retaliate and fight back to show that you are not going to be a victim. 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. Even if you come off second best, you have at least proven that you are not going to passively accept bullying. And it seems just – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The strategy is ancient and not only does it fit with human nature, it also seems to be a strategy found throughout the natural kingdom. Who can argue with Winston Churchill, The Karate Kid or Animal Planet? Well, actually, I’d like to argue with them – but please don’t hit me.
Is retaliation going to be part of the coaching we give our kids, especially if they have already been bullied? If we are going to advise our kids to fight back when bullied, we should be sure of two things – be sure that it is a strategy that will work and be sure that there aren’t better alternatives.
Does it work?
There is plenty of 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. This strategy might work fine if they have sufficient physical prowess and confidence. I would say that this is not bullying, this is just fighting. (Schools and the law will defend a victim against aggression, but if it is just a fight, then usually both face punishments, regardless of who started it.) Real bullying happens with a power imbalance. The typical victim of bullying 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 or courage, and will just add to their sense of shame.
So, fighting back might work for some, but it could be a disaster for many others. The negative results could be that they lose the fight and just prove their powerlessness to both the bully, the onlookers and themselves. In stories, good guys always win fights. Reality is different – the best fighter wins fights, and bullies usually have the edge. There is no justice in fighting – winning proves nothing except you can win a fight, but avoiding a fight proves that you have intelligence. Fighting back, rather than just defending yourself or avoiding the fight, is likely to end up with more injuries. There are stories where retaliation goes wrong and the intended victim ends up inflicting serious harm and getting in serious trouble.
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 turned out, both got into a lot of trouble. And maybe the whole idea is flawed anyway. Australian psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg cites research that shows kids who retaliate get victimised more in the long run. Revenge escalates.
From the same Chuck Norris school of parenting comes the old saying that a little bullying toughens kids up and prepares them for life. A widely misreported study of 2000 10 to 12 year olds by psychologist Melissa Witkow (often running under headlines like “Bullying is Good!”), seemed to show that those who fight back are more respected and considered more mature by both peers and teachers. A closer look at the Witkow research shows that the ones who fought back were already mature and respected – it wasn’t necessarily the fighting that made them so. The most overlooked point in the reporting of the survey was the kids who did best of all in the study – the happiest, best adjusted kids were the ones who were not bullied at all.
So do we want to give our kids a strategy that might work, but (a) they might not have the size, skill or courage to carry out, because bullies can usually outgun their victim, (b) will get them in trouble with schools and the law, (c) might backfire and end up with injury and more bullying? And do we really want to coach them in a strategy they cannot take into adult life? Schoolyard scraps are one thing, but adult violence is much more repulsive.
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. Adults should not intervene in every conflict, but in the case of bullying, persecution by a more powerful aggressor, the victim deserves to be defended and vindicated by a mature authority. I fully support the idea of being assertive. To be able to say in a firm voice, “Don’t do that!”, to be able to refuse pressure, to carry yourself with dignity, to have a Teflon-coated ego to deflect taunts with courageous humour – these are great things. And I don’t believe those skills have anything to do with being able to punch someone in the face. Teaching a child martial arts may be a good thing, if it gives them poise and the confidence that comes from knowing they could defend themselves. I have a hesitation though – not all martial arts instructors are like gentle and wise Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid, and many kids would lack impulse control to not use their skills aggressively.
There are a range of opinions on this issue, but a quick scan around the anti-bullying websites and published comments by experts working with bullied kids shows a solid consensus in opposition to fighting back. Dr Ken Rigby, cited as Australia’s preeminent anti-bullying authority (news.com.au), said violence was not the answer. “Fighting is not something any reasonable education consultant would suggest as a means of dealing with bullying,” said Dr Rigby. “Making out you have to be a tough guy to survive in this world, I don’t know that is right. It’s not a matter of making kids super tough so they don’t get bullied. Very often the bullies are not working on their own. If you have half a dozen kids giving you a hard time, it’s physically impossible for you to stand up against them.” What these experts and sites do offer is a range of strategies to eliminate the bullying culture in schools, to give resilience and skills to kids to deflect bullying. They have proven effectiveness, though none of them are magic bullets. And they certainly don’t have the dramatic appeal of, “And so I punched him in the mouth and he never bothered me again!”