As I was sitting in my doctor's office waiting to hear my name called, I noticed a headline on the November 30, 2009, edition of Time Magazine that immediately drew me into the cover story. It was titled "The Case Against Overparenting." The cover image showed a child suspended by strings like a marionette, and within the article was another picture of a well-intentioned mother wrapping her son in bubble-wrap as he prepares to go off on some adventure.
Many of us are overparenting our kids. As a nation, we are postmodern and increasingly void of moral absolutes. Whatever I say/believe about myself, life, and others is fine as long as it doesn't hurt anyone. We have money, time, information, and technology at our disposal. Parents feel like taxi drivers, appointment keepers, money trees, and therapists these days as they are desperately trying to be all, and give all to their kids. Many parents are living under the belief that their children should not be exposed to struggle or experience pain.
The Time article used a term that I believe was first coined by Foster Cline and Jim Fay and used in their excellent book Parenting with Love and Logic about 20 years ago. "Helicopter pilot parents" are parents who hover over their children, living to protect and serve their children at the first sign of need or want. Our sincere desire to completely protect our children is profoundly impacting their social, emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual growth. Children of helicopter pilot parents do not grow up to understand accountability. They are not resilient and often act as if they are entitled to everything they desire, even when they clearly are not. When it comes to our response to bullying, I believe many parents, administrators, and politicians are dealing with the issue like "helicopter pilot parents."
As a school counselor, I have noticed that bullying is a constant topic of discussion among many parents, a few teachers, and (due to the rash of anti-bullying laws) all school administrators. Bullying has been on the forefront of the American psyche since the Columbine tragedy. News media thoroughly cover the stories of students who are victims of bullying. In some cases, bullying contributes to suicide victims' feelings of hopelessness and despair—and authorities have even pursued criminal charges for bullies. My heart goes out to the families and friends who grieve these tragic losses.
However, I will contend that our collective response to these tragedies is out of proportion when applied to kids in general. Instead of treating all kids like victims of bullying and begging bullies to be nice, we need to build up and equip the targets of bullying. These are the people who want things to change. These are the pupils who are teachable. We need to start by backing off the "helicopter pilot" style and giving students tools to deal with people who are mean to them. When these tools are used correctly, bullying will cease and we will have socially competent, confident, and resilient young people living their lives.
Fair-minded politicians with good intentions are passing "anti-bully" laws that mandate curriculum and programming in schools to extinguish bullying. The anti-bully programs now being implemented in schools are not working because they are misguided, focusing their effort on making people be nice. These programs severely punish mean kids (with a zero-tolerance policy) without giving targets of bullying the tools to deal with their problems by using good strategies and techniques. Parents across the country have jumped on this bandwagon. This effort to reform aggressors will fail. See the current American penal system for details. People change when they want to change and have the tools to do so.
Too much attention and intervention are happening on behalf of victims, geared toward bullies. Is this realistic? Can we make people be nice to us? No. Can we justifiably stop free speech? No. Some people may call me an "idiot" after reading this blog. Can I make them stop? No. If someone calls my daughter a hurtful name, should I tell my daughter to tell on that person to get them in trouble? Would that be helpful at all? Can you prevent your own children bullying each other in the back seat of the car?
Currently, 45 states have adopted anti-bully laws that hold schools accountable in cases where they are not able to prevent bullying. These laws expect school administrations to oversee and monitor tens of thousands of interactions that take place in their schools every day. Not if, but when the school fails to stop bullying, they will be held liable and subject to huge monetary compensation. This is an impossible, impractical, and unhealthy response to this "epidemic." There are better ways to deal with these issues. And it starts at home.
Here are some things we can do as parents to help our kids deal with mean kids.
1. Help your kids understand the difference between teasing and bullying and give them strategies to respond to both.
Bullying is using your power and control to hurt somebody physically, socially, and emotionally, repeatedly and without remorse. Teasing is joking at another's expense with equal footing. It stops when asked and seeks forgiveness when another person is wounded.
2. Understand the dynamics of bullying.
Think of bullying as a game of power and control. Given the definition of bullying above, it would be safe to say that we are all bullies sometimes to some people. Our little angels are little devils to each other in the back seat … remember. We don't want to give bullies power and control; we want to take it away from them in a way that will make them stop.
3. Teach your kids to win the power battle.
• Help your children realize they have the power to choose how to respond to bullies. They should not act flustered, angry, or sad. They should chill out and keep an even keel. Laugh with bullies who joke at their expense. Deescalate the situation by not giving bullies what they want. If children are angry or sad, have them deal with it later with you or another trusted person.
• Instruct children to treat the other person (the bully) as they would want to be treated (see Matthew 7:12 and 1 Peter 3:9). This teaching exists to bring peace to every relationship in the world. It's very hard to be mean when the person you are being mean to is being nice to you.
• Instruct kids not to tell on bullies. They should try to deal with the situation using these rules. If they don't seem to work, have them keep practicing with you or someone else who can help them.
• Report on bullies if they are breaking the law. If a bully is hurting your child physically, stealing and breaking their things, it is okay to report this behavior to the proper authorities.
• Keep reading and finding better strategies to build up and equip your children. The best resources I know are these:
Many of the ideas from this post come from this website and program, based on the Golden Rule. If you sign up for this newsletter, you get some wonderful pamphlets that you can use with your child. Plus, this site has some pretty good teaching videos. I have used these materials in the schools where I work, with fantastic results.
Parenting with Love and Logic
This is a parenting theory empire that has stood the test of time. Learn more how not to be a "helicopter pilot parent" and find many resources for your family.
Just like adults, kids need to know that they are not victims. They have power and control over how they respond to situations that scare them. And their responses can change the outcome of the situation. Armed with prayer, your affirmation of their abilities, and the knowledge that God is with them, your kids can carry themselves with confidence.
Trevor Simpson, LCPC, is a school counselor in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has worked with youth and families for 18 years in various capacities, including inpatient, residential, and outpatient therapeutic settings, as a youth pastor, as a youth and family therapist, and as a school counselor. He is married and is the father of two daughters.