Childrearing

Are You To Blame If Your Kid Is A Bully?

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With new reports out of Sweden showing that bullying has long-term effects on a person’s health — girls are in an even higher-risk category than boys — it makes sense that a former Australian judge’s finger-wagging recommendation to hold parents accountable might be the next step in anti-bullying measures.

“[Parents] do have a responsibility — if they can — to prevent [children] acting in a way that harms others,” said Alastair Nicholson, the former judge.

But if you won’t take one man’s opinion to task, then consider that a similar discussion of parental responsibility was sparked following the suicide of 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn in Paullina, Iowa. Weishuhn was extensively bullied after outing himself to a few friends last April. According to reports, the teen was besieged in the high school hallways to the point that he needed protection from teachers to walk safely between classes.

Not only did the Sioux-City Journal write a front page editorial stating, “We are all to blame,” but Weishuhn’s death spurred Iowa lawmaker Chris Hall to propose legislation that focuses on mediation between the bully’s and the victim’s parents. Though this bill already resembles the some of the anti-bullying measures that exist in many states, Hall takes it a step further in Iowa: If the parent refuses to cooperate, they might be faced with criminal charges. Though Hall said her vision for the bill sways towards community service as opposed to jail time, she’s determined to bring parents into the process, because, “It helps to connect the dots for a child.”

I can’t help but connect my own outraged dots to recent bully victim, 68-year-old bus monitor Karen Klein. Klein, as it’s been widely reported, was filmed being mercilessly taunted by a group of teenage boys. According to reports, the boys and their parents apologized through notes and then publicly apologized, yet only one parent showed up at her door to deliver a face-to-face apology. On Friday, the kids were suspended for a year and were instructed to do community service at nursing homes.

But when I think of these two stories — Klein’s verbal assault and Weishuhn’s suicide — I ask myself the two questions that most parents have likely considered: What if it was my kid? and if it was, How did I fail as a parent?

On his weekly Barbershop panel on NPR’s “Tell Me More,” writer  Jimi Izrael seemed to echo my thoughts calling the Klein bullying issue a “failure of parenting.” Though the panelists pointed out that the parents involved were horrified and that kids that age can be “sadistic,” I wonder if a little bit of both is true. As in, yes, we as parents are partially to blame. And more, I think that parental consequence, or at the least, intervention, is sometimes needed — especially when it comes to long-term bullying.

Case in point: the horrific suicide of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old who killed herself after being relentlessly bullied by classmates in Massachusetts. Numerous adults — teachers and parents — were aware that Prince was bullied in and out of school. Though the girls involved were charged, there was no formal penalty for the adults (outside of a lifetime sentence of guilt). Educator and author of the bestselling book Queen Bees & Wannabes, Rosalind Wiseman told USA Today in a recent interview that she wished the adults in the Prince case were held accountable as well. “Certainly the adults created the culture in which [bullying] was allowed to thrive,” she said.

In trying to better understand this question – should parents be held responsible? — I asked my friend, reporter Ronda Kaysen, who not only writes about social justice topics, but who is also a mom of two. She quickly shut my argument down.

“To criminalize parents for children with behavioral problems is the wrong approach,” she said. “Parents aren’t going to act simply because there is a risk that they’re going to jail. It might just make things worse.”

Of course, each situation varies. I’m not suggesting that all parents or teachers should be dragged into court or publicly reamed for every case of bullying. I also see Ronda’s point — and as studies suggest, most bullies are not only bullied themselves, but are the product of behavioral concerns (and even sleep disorders).

If this is so, then isn’t it possible that enforcing mediation and parental accountability could help diffuse a potentially explosive situation for both the victim — and the bully? If nothing else, it follows the sentiment of the Sioux-City Journal. It leaves us all to blame.

(Photo: karen roach/Shutterstock)