By Harriet P. Gross
October is National Bullying Prevention Month. What can be done about this menace, the cause of suffering — even to the point of suicide — in an ever-increasing number of our young people?
Jewish Family Service of Dallas, which has always provided important information to our community on important issues, took the (question of) bull(ying) by the horns during a recent weekend of learning. About a hundred mental health professionals and teachers attended two sessions with a pair of psychoanalysts/psychologists who are making this problem a centerpiece of their work.
Kerry Kelly Novick and Jack Novick have more than four decades of clinical experience with children and families. Now, their emphasis is on positive parenting techniques that can help prevent bullying. “Emotional Muscle” is the name of their book, which promises that strong parents can make strong children: not children who can handle bullying, but — much more important — children who are strong enough NOT to be bullies.
During the evening, part of the Dr. Sol Lurie Community Education Program, the couple talked about how to build this emotional muscle. That was followed by the full-day 17th annual Janis Ablon Professional Conference on the theme, “Children in the Shadow of Violence: Engaging the Cycle of Bullying.”
The Novicks reinforced their words with pictures. Parents, they said, can actually be early starters of aggression problems in their children. To illustrate, they showed several film clips of a mother with her growing boy. At first, she was feeding the infant a bottle, but teasing him with it and laughing at his discomfort.
Then, at several months of age, he sat with her before a pile of toys as she repeatedly offered him one, but grabbed it away to replace it with another. Such aggressive play could make him aggressive, they warned: “Children get messages of power and control from these interactions. By the time they go to school, these have been reinforced by video games and the like. … Then, their destructive behavior makes others the helpless ones.”
The old adage rang frighteningly true in this new context: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and he will not depart from it.”
Today’s terrifying statistics: Every month, 282,000 young people are physically attacked in U.S. high schools, while 2.5 million American children are medicated in attempts to control their behavior.
The Novicks teach children to be in charge of their own lives, to learn that “quick and easy” is not always best and that there are other choices. But they need help to make such distinctions, and parents have to recognize that their children will need self-esteem in order to find those other, better ways. Adults are role models who must model cooperation and collaboration, rather than forcing others to do their will.
Community Rabbi Howard Wolk set the tone for the conference with a straightforward statement: “To stop bullying is the moral equivalent of saving a life. Being a friend to someone is the best gift you can give. … With one small action, you can change a person’s life.”
Dr. Joan Berger, board member and education committee chair of Dallas Psychoanalytic Center, introduced the Novicks and moderated the discussion after their presentation. Also a member of Jewish Family Service’s Domestic Violence Committee, Berger stressed that putting a stop to bullying is an ethical obligation.
The day after the conference, I heard a report from a college professor who is studying this phenomenon. He’s learned that the bullying prevention programs currently used in schools not only do not stop the practice, but actually teach kids new techniques for making others miserable! The Novicks believe the only prevention that works must begin at home, from the day the child is born. And not just during the “prevention month” of October.
(You can find “Emotional Muscle: Strong Parents, Strong Children” on Amazon for as little as $15 for a bound copy and only $3 for the Kindle version. Good gift for new parents, don’t you think?)