David Perry is glad there is attention drawn to the bullying of children with special needs. But he wonders how effective bullying the bullies really is.
Not long after our son Nico was born and diagnosed with Down Syndrome, we began sharing the news with our community of friends and family. Frequently, people found a way to express their concerns by talking about bullying. I’ve spent years thinking about why that is, how the mental space occupied in people’s minds by “Down Syndrome”—bullying.
It’s a real problem and one I worry about too, though I worry more about Nico’s ability to talk, his health, what happens when he turns 21, what happens when I die. Bullying isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of concerns, but it is at least on the list.
In many ways, the child with special needs exists as a passive bullied-object in the American imagination, and this raises important questions about agency and representation of the disabled in our culture. Moreover, the big questions about bullying are important—how do you stop kids from bullying? Why do kids bully?
How do you teach them empathy?
It is with this broader context in mind that I read a story of a father and a six-year-old son in Central, LA. My son Nico is also 6. He could be this boy’s classmate.
The story, as reported by local news, describes a father who decided to teach his son not to bully kids with special needs. Unfortunately, he decided to do this by bullying him.
One Central father used a little public humiliation to teach his son an important lesson over the weekend.
Tim Bandy and his son Alliance spent an hour of their day Sunday in front of Central High School in an attempt to teach the six year-old a very important lesson.
“I drew a sign up, front and back, and stood him on the side of the road in Central where he goes to school. The sign read ‘I will not bully or pick on kids with special needs.’ And he stood out there for about an hour,” explained Bandy of the interesting punishment.
Bandy expanded on the punishment:
“Quit being a follower, be a leader. If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Make your own decisions, because if you follow everybody else it’s going to get you nowhere. And like I told him, ‘where’s all your friends at that were doing the same thing? They’re at home playing, church, whatever they do on Sunday, and you’re here standing on the side of the road looking like a fool,” added Bandy.
Bandy agreed that some parents may find his method a little extreme, but he cautioned them to not knock it until you try it.
“What’s more extreme? Doing that? They get in trouble, whoop him? Taking all of his stuff away? I mean, it’s an hour of his time. It doesn’t hurt him. It might hurt his feelings, but I am still alive, I’ve had my feelings hurt quite a bit,” said Bandy.
I know the father meant well. He wants to be an ally in efforts against bullying. He wants to protect my son. I’m glad he thinks his son’s bullying is important enough to require this kind of punishment. It might even be effective in changing behavior. I always wonder what I would say to a parent whose child bullied my son, or, for that matter, my daughter. I’m sadly likely to find out someday.
But think about what the son ends up learning. He learns that his father can humiliate him publicly. He learns that children with special needs are to be protected—they are vulnerable and weak. Does this shift his understanding of disability? Does he learn to see people with special needs as people, as whole people, with whom he can engage and form relationships? Does anything change other than the boy being afraid of future humiliations? I don’t think so.
In fact, I think the boy is most likely to learn that when someone weaker does something wrong, you can force them into humiliation in order to teach them a lesson. At least, that’s what his dad has done to him.
And I can’t help but dig into the father’s quote: His three strategies are: Take away his things, humiliate him, or “whoop” him. These are effective strategies to punish children. Sometimes I take things away from my kids when those things are enabling mis-behavior, but I know it’s never my best parental strategy. When I am at my best as a father, I create positive rewards which they have to earn through good behavior; ideally, the rewards are directly linked to the behavior, but just a star system (do good things, get stars, trade stars for dessert/TV) can work wonders.
At the core, this father is trying to make his son feel as bad as the kids he bullied: This is about empathy. Teaching empathy is hard. There may be no more important job for a parent or caregiver. But this kind of punishment is a poor way to achieve that goal.
Ultimately, I don’t think you can teach empathy to children through shared suffering, at least not as effectively as through shared joy.
Originally posted at: How Did We Get Into This Mess?