Garth George: Hit bullies back to nip issue in the bud

Bullying victim Casey Heynes. Photo / Supplied
Bullying victim Casey Heynes. Photo / Supplied

I have gold-plated advice for those, male and female and particularly children, who are the victims of physical bullying: All bullies are cowards, so the best thing to do is to hit back - fast and hard.

Administer a black eye, a bleeding nose or a dislocated jaw and you can be sure that those who use physical force to try to terrorise others won't do it again - at least not soon.

And before you rush off to label me a dinosaur, take note that the last time I looked at a Herald online poll this week 54 per cent of readers voted that the best way for a victim to handle a school bully was to hit back, and 45 per cent said the victim should tell his or her teacher.

The poll arose from a story out of Sydney at the weekend about a 16-year-old schoolboy who, after being hit repeatedly by another student, picked up his tormentor and threw him on the ground.

All this was recorded on video and posted on one of those nefarious social websites, and as a result the lad who retaliated in kind has been labelled either a hero or a villain.

To me he is neither: he is simply a kid who used a perfectly legal action of self defence to deal with a problem that was really no one else's business but his and his attacker's.

That's how it would have been in my schooldays, way back in antiquity, and neither parents nor teachers would have become involved. One set of parents would have said "It serves you right" and patched him up; the other would have said "You keep sticking up for yourself" and put a plaster on his skinned knuckles.

My parents never became involved in childhood disputes because they knew that while adults who fell out over their children's tiffs could hold bitterness and resentment for years, kids generally made up in a matter of days, if not hours.

This was such a blatant example of self defence that even three Auckland secondary school principals have not condemned the Sydney lad outright. As Westlake Girls' High School principal Alison Gernhoefer said: "It's pretty sad, isn't it? The kid obviously has put up with bullying for a long time and he was driven to retaliating. Good parents would say, 'Don't retaliate, just walk away', but it's pretty hard to do when this lad has had this type of experience."

That's pretty sensible, except that good parent would, in my view, say "Poke the little bugger on the nose and be done with it."

"Kids are just kids," said Ms Gernhoefer, "and they're growing up. What we'd get them to do is face what they've done wrong and try to improve behaviour." That's all very well in theory but rarely works in practice.

An Australian survey a little while back reckoned that New Zealand was one of the worst countries in the western world for bullying but what was not explained was what the surveyors considered to be bullying.

A few years ago a British government adviser on children's play wrote a book in which he claimed that minor playground spats were being blown out of proportion and branded "bullying".

Tim Gill said that youngsters must learn to cope with teasing and name-calling so they are able to handle awkward situations as adults. He said the extent of bullying was being exaggerated by over-protective parents and teachers, who applied the label to childhood squabbles which were previously assumed to be part of growing up.

An article at the time in London's Daily Telegraph noted that police officers had warned that a target-chasing culture in the bullying "industry" was forcing them to make "easy" arrests for offences such as bullying. In one example, a child in Kent was arrested for throwing a slice of cucumber from a tuna sandwich at a classmate.

But Mr Gill warned against mollycoddling children by describing every day teasing as bullying. He claimed it was part of a trend to "bubble-wrap" children, which meant that they did not develop the resilience needed to deal with adult life.

Parents, teachers, police and officialdom were all to blame for overreacting to risks such as injury, abduction and abuse. "Children are not always nice to each other, but people are not always nice to each other. The world is not like that," Mr Gill said.

"Bullying is where the victimisation is sustained and there is a power imbalance. I do not mean we should allow unbridled cruelty, just that one option is asking, 'Can you sort it out yourself?'

"Interactions that would have just been seen as children being children are now treated as something much more sinister ... We are running the risk of children growing up who are not going to be able to look after themselves in social situations."

Mr Gill would be chuffed to hear about the Sydney lad. He now knows how to look after himself.

- NZ Herald

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