by Dr. Tana Dineen

Bullying is being reported everywhere—in factories, stores, offices, on the roads and in schools.

Psychologists have taken to categorizing it, creating 10 different classes including cyber-bullies (who haunt the Internet) and “serial bullies” (described in terms similar to serial killers). The biggest concern being expressed is about bullying in schools, where the topic is gaining national attention because experts, pointing to tragic events in Littleton, Tabor and Ottawa, claim that seemingly trivial bullying will lead to serious violence, including murder and suicide.

Last October, police in Halifax set up a bullying hot line for students. This spring, British Columbia’s education minister began promoting an anti-bullying video, and many schools across Canada, including Vincent Massey Public School in Ottawa, are initiating anti-bullying programs. A further indicator of the growing concern can be found in the number of books being published; at last count listed more than 120 titles.

In reflecting on the 1950s when I was growing up, I can’t recall fears about violence at school. Sure, there were schoolyard fights—kids were knocked down, I was hit by the occasional snowball. There was an “in-crowd,” and those not part of it, like me, were snubbed. And sure, there was name-calling; I used to be called “Tana-Banana.” I wore glasses and got good grades, so I was sometimes teased. But I can’t remember anything that couldn’t be shrugged off.

So, I wonder what it is that we’re combating and how bullying has become such a massive problem. I’ve been less than sympathetic as I’ve followed the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal’s hearing of the complaints of Azmi Dubran. Now 20, he alleges that he was harassed for five years by other students who called him “queer” and “faggot,” and that, on one occasion, his shirt was set on fire. Claiming this interfered with his ability to study, plan a career and join in school sports, he is suing the school district for more than $100,000 in damages. He wants lost income because, in his words, he “languished in front of a television set for 13 months,” $3,750 for golf lessons and green fees at one of B.C.’s most expensive golf courses and, of course, money for a year of counseling.

The board says that it responded appropriately to his complaints and there are suggestions Dubran was himself inclined toward using derogatory words.

While what actually happened in this case remains under a cloud of allegations, opinions and perspectives, the big issue is whether a school should be held responsible for student bullying. My initial reaction was “No.” However, I’ve changed my mind.

The number of complaints of bullying in schools is increasing. Psychologist Peter Jaffe, at the Family Court Clinic in London, Ontario, claims that at least 15 per cent of students are involved either as bullies or victims. What accounts for this change since I went to school? Some would argue the external world has changed, that children are exposed to more violence in the media and there is less discipline and poorer supervision. But I am inclined to attribute the change to something more insidious and to point the finger at the narcissistic self-esteem movement that has undermined our traditional approach to child-rearing.

In classes, children are taught to repeat and believe mantras like “I am Special” and “I am Loveable.” Good grades and good behaviour have taken a back seat as educators and parents have accepted that their primary duty is to make kids feel good about themselves.

The belief underlying this movement is that low self-esteem is the cause of all problems. As psychologist and self-esteem guru Nathaniel Branden, says: “I cannot think of a single psychological problem— from anxiety and depression to fear of intimacy or success, to spouse battery and child molestation—that is not traceable to the problem of poor self-esteem.”

Therapists, educators and politicians, accepting the popular view that low self-esteem gives rise to aggression, have endorsed interventions and established treatment programs to boost self-esteem. Students are being socially promoted from one grade to the next to keep them with their peers and the grading of achievement is discouraged so they won’t feel bad.

What is ignored in this feel-good approach is the fact that bullying and violence are often carried out by people with inflated egos rather than low self-esteem. Repeated research findings have indicated that those who are aggressive—the premeditated murderers, genocidal maniacs, gang leaders and violent kids—do not suffer low self-esteem.

“A recipe for violence,” as Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Associations notes, “is a mean streak combined with an unwarranted sense of self-worth.”

And psychologist Roy Baumeister, who has devoted his career to studying self-esteem, admits his surprise in discovering that the self-esteem movement in schools may be having the dangerous reverse effect of promoting bullying and intimidation.

“These practices,” Baumeister says, “may cultivate inflated views of self and entitlements, which constitute the dangerous form of high self-esteem.”

Despite all the fluster over self-esteem, surveys show that most North Americans already hold exaggerated opinions of themselves, which may account for the rising problem with bullying. Instead of counseling, most need training in personal responsibility and self-control.

Perhaps, the North Vancouver school district should be held responsible for the bullying in the Dubran case, not for its failure to intervene but for its implicit role in creating bullies and their victims.

If Dubran wins, and well he might, school boards and education ministries across Canada may find themselves paying for their mistake of encouraging uncritical self-worship, upholding the students’ right to “feel good” and embracing the foolish notion of “bully-proofed” schools.

Used by permission. 

PAL V9N5 (September-October 2001)