Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Dealing With Bullies

by Miriam Schulman

Jeffrey Seglin, New York Times ethics columnist, provoked a fascinating series of reader comments by posing the question, "Is it ever all right to encourage a child to use force to stand up to a bully?" Almost to a person, readers from all over the country answered with an emphatic "Yes."

Several things struck me about the exchange: Some people seemed to think this was a situation where "ethics" didn't apply; they argued that it was wrong to fight, but that in some cases, you had to do the wrong thing. This seems an insufficient account of ethics to me, even if you believe, as I do, that occasionally people have to fight to defend themselves.

First, it's probably worth separating the strategic question-Does it work to use force?-from the ethical question-Is it right to use force? Center Director of Character Education Steve Johnson begins by challenging the idea that fighting back is usually effective. Despite the many anecdotes people offered on the New York Times site where decking the bully stopped the problem, Johnson argues that statistically, a victimized child is much more likely to get hurt in a toe-to-toe fight with a bully. Bullies, according to Dan Olweus, author of a popular bullying prevention program, are often physically strong kids who tend to be hyperactive, disruptive, and impulsive.

If fighting back doesn't work, what does? Bob Michels, School Programs Manager, who teaches a section on bullying in the Center's Raising an Ethical Child series, stresses the importance of enlisting bystanders in anti-bullying efforts. This strategy, advocated by bullying.org, is based on research showing that bullies like an audience. W.M. Craig and D.J. Pepler studied the behavior of a group of Canadian children on the playground and found that 85 percent of the bullying incidents they observed occurred in the presence of peers, and often with their participation. At the same time, 83 percent of the students said that watching bullying made them uncomfortable. Perhaps most significant, more than half of the time, bullying stopped within 10 seconds when another child intervened on behalf of the victim.

The best response to bullying, then, is systemic and involves teachers, principals, recreation leaders, etc. in creating a culture where bullying is not tolerated and where the majority of children, who are neither bullies nor victims, are encouraged to do their part to stop hurtful behavior. Aside from being effective, it also promotes ethical behavior and community.

Miriam Schulman is director of communications at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 2004