I was bullied in grade school. I hate bullying passionately. It breaks my heart. It makes me angry.
But I was disturbed by this story about a Ft. Hood, Texas father who, upon hearing that his son was bulling his fourth-grade classmates, forced him to stand at a busy intersection holding a hot pink sign that read, “I am a bully. Honk if you hate bullies.” The father made the case that “we don’t need another Columbine.”
“Bullying is also a form of public humiliation,” the father told a radio interviewer. “Maybe he understands that when he humiliates someone publicly that doesn’t feel good. Hopefully he’ll take that with him so the next time he tries to bully someone he’ll think about it twice.”
This dad needs to learn the right way to teach empathy.
That’s basically what he claims to be doing by forcing his son to experience the kind of public humiliation he inflicted on his classmates. It’s the basis for his desire to prevent some other child from being pushed to the brink of a horror like Columbine. But this form of punishment also makes the father himself into a bully, not for trying to correct his son’s behavior, but for not doing so in a way that is empathetic to his own son’s humiliation. Whatever the son may learn about his own behavior, he is also learning about his father’s behavior, and painfully so.
I’m all for teaching kids harsh lessons and the consequences of their actions, in straight-forward ways that are commensurate to the wrong or harm they do. And certainly bullying is as serious, if not more serious, a crime as steeling, vandalism, or any number of offenses that require reparation to the person harmed. But a parent also needs to teach by example, and one of the hardest things to teach in any other way than by example is empathy.
You all have heard me speak longingly for more Atticus Finch-like parents in today’s world. I think of the famous advice Atticus gives Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird at the end of her first miserable day of school, which had culminated in her pummeling a classmate for embarrassing her in front of a new teacher.
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Atticus is referring not only to the classmate, Scouts victim, but also her new teacher by whom Scout feels misunderstood. Atticus gives this instruction in the context of several stern warnings against Scout fighting with any of her classmates. But he teaches empathy, not only by the way he ties together the experience of the persecutor and persecuted on either side of Scout, but also in the manner in which he himself corrects her.
There’s the sad old joke about the parent swatting the child and screaming, “I’ll teach you to hit your sister!” Various studies report that more than half the children who bully have been bullied themselves, or witnessed abuse or violence at home and in their immediate community. A parent who wants to stop his or her child from bullying must reflect upon what causes this behavior, and that includes his or her own tendency to be cruel to others, whether physically, verbally, or by social stigma.
Of course this story hit the news, and the father has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, often not very empathetic or polite. But I believe he and his son are at the center of a very important discussion.