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Changing the script for bullying

Today's children swim in a culture of mean, said Barbara Coloroso, a Colorado-based parenting and teaching expert. The Internet and digital technologies allow bullying to happen all the time.

Today’s children swim in a culture of mean, said Barbara Coloroso, a Colorado-based parenting and teaching expert.

The Internet and digital technologies allow bullying to happen all the time, with a potential worldwide audience. And since the Internet and cellphones are such a big part of children and adolescents’ social lives, they may be more scared to report bullying because they don’t want those social tools taken away.

Parents and teachers may not be able to change the tools of bullying, but they can help change the script.

Coloroso has been speaking on the topic for 40 years. Much of her work focuses on three groups: the bully, the bullied and the bystander. But once a child enters a role, she doesn’t believe they have to stay there.

“The goal here is to rewrite the script in the tragedy for all three characters. I want to give the bully a better role. They’re not bad kids. What they did was mean and cruel, and we have to work beyond that.”

She’ll be speaking about how to do this at Watson Lake on Nov. 15. The free event, which includes a multicultural meal in between workshops, is being hosted by the Liard Basin Task Force.

“My goal is to raise a generation of fourth characters: those allies, those witnesses, resistors and defenders who are willing to stand up and speak out at cost to themselves,” said Coloroso.

“When that high-status social bully says to all the Grade 8 girls, ‘I don’t like the new girl, you want to be in my group, you won’t eat lunch with her either,’ I want your daughter to be the one to say, ‘That’s mean, that’s cruel,’ and have the courage to go sit next to the new girl.

“But she’ll do that at cost - she’s not going to get any stars or stickers or lunch with the principal. She’ll probably get, ‘Oh, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes,’ or ‘You’re next.’”

But children can stand out - if they see their parents modelling the same behaviour, she said. Wise parents will recognize conflict is normal, but will also teach their children to resolve it in a nonviolent way. Bullying differs from normal conflict because in bullying situations, there’s an unequal power relationship, she said.

“You resolve conflict, you stop bullying,” she said.

Teaching children to make choices for themselves at a young age can help them stand up when they see others being bullied, she said. It can be a lonely position.

Bullies take pleasure from causing other people pain, and there’s the threat of future aggression, she said. Children who are different or stand out are more likely to be targets of bullying, said the former special education teacher.

She uses the word “targets,” a term coined by Gavin de Becker, an American expert on predicting and managing violence, intentionally. It reminds people who have been bullied that the problem isn’t with them, but with the bullies.

And in communities like Watson Lake, where many people have had family members in residential schools, that message is crucial.

“You will see people who underestimate themselves or are underestimated by others,” said Beatrice Ufitingabire, co-ordinator of Liard Basin Task Force. Many people in Watson Lake don’t finish high school, she said. Many children are placed in foster homes outside of the community, she said. She’s seen girls pregnant at 14.

Coloroso, who first visited Watson Lake about 15 years ago, keeps that history in mind when she speaks. A former Roman Catholic nun, she knows that former residential school students were not taught parenting skills, and as a result have a harder time being parents themselves.

While healing may take several generations, it is possible if people have support, she said.

“We need to have an extensive support system for parents and help them. It won’t negate (what they went through) - that’s a thread in the tapestry of their life, we can’t destroy that. That’s there. As much as you’d like to rip it out, it’s there. So where do we go from here?”

Bullies learn to stop bullying and targets learn to speak up for themselves in the same way, said Coloroso: by doing something good for others. Teachers can give bullies chances to use their leadership skills constructively. And targets need the same opportunities. Having children switch schools or sending them to a counsellor isn’t enough, she said.

When parents ask her why their child is still a target of bullying, she often responds with a question.

“What’s he doing? Is he working in a soup kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, a nursery? What’s he doing for other human beings? Because one of the finest ways for a targeted kid to heal is also the same way that a bullied kid can learn to use his skills better - and that is to do good for other human beings. Get him working at Habitat for Humanity instead of putting him on an anti-bullying committee, God forbid. Wouldn’t be good for either of them.”

Those searching for an example may need only to look at Ufitingabire.

She grew up in Rwanda. In 1990, shortly after war broke out, she left, with only the clothes on her back. In 1994, approximately 800,000 people died in just under four months. That number includes Ufitingabire’s father, three of his wives and 14 of her siblings.

Ufitingabire spent four years in Burundi, and returned to Rwanda in 1994. She began an organization to help women. She studied journalism and opened her own newspaper.

“I reconciled many people without talking about the word ‘reconciliation,’” she said. “I never said, ‘You have to love this person.’ But I said, ‘You have to love yourself, and you can’t do it by yourself.’”

“If survivors, I’m a survivor of a genocide myself SLps if they can overcome in the work, getting my life positively, everybody can. This isn’t just me - I think everybody can,” she said.

“They don’t have to be ashamed by the history,” she said of those who have survived residential schools. “But (they can) look at the future, and what it can be for them.”

Even though today’s generation faces new challenges, Coloroso has a lot of hope for them, she said. She looks at her own family as an example.

Her mother was thrilled when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. “I can’t believe in my lifetime that we would have a black president,” her daughter remembers her saying.

Coloroso, who marched in support of the civil rights movement, was equally excited.

Her children’s response? “‘What is the big deal? He’s black.’”

Coloroso will speak at the Watson Lake Centre on Nov. 15. Her session on bullying begins at 2 p.m. Her parenting seminar begins at 6 p.m. A free meal will be provided between sessions.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at