Institute of Marriage and Family Canada

Bullying study urges government to tread carefully

  • December 2, 2012

OTTAWA - An Ottawa think tank suggests enlisting parents to help schools, rather than government legislation, is the better route in addressing the problem of bullying.

The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada’s (IMFC) Nov. 26 report “Family responses to bullying: Why governments won’t stop bullying until families step up” by Peter Jon Mitchell advises governments to legislate “very cautiously.”

The study urges governments to “promote community based responses” and consider parents “as the primary educator” when developing policy that empowers parents.

It recommends parents be “proactive in speaking to children about bullying,” “monitor screen time” and set “limits and expectations” around the use of electronic devices and the Internet, be “intentional” in cultivating warm bonds with their children and pursue an authoritative rather than an authoritarian style of parenting.

It also suggests educators bring in experts and resources to help parents and invite them to help develop a school response to bullying.

The report also includes a detailed section on cyberbullying. “Legislators have focused primarily on the one environment where they have the most influence — the school board,” the report says. But the American experience has shown legislation has little impact on the problem.

The 14-page report examines the social science regarding bullying behaviour, showing aggressive behaviour often starts in the family, especially in homes where parents use an authoritarian parenting model “characterized by strictness and lack of warmth.”

“The authoritative parenting style, on the other hand, is characterized by warm and caring communication with sufficient supervision and clearly expressed expectations and limits,” the report says.

Shame-based parenting and disapproval of the child instead of the behaviour can also contribute to bullying, it says. Lack of supervision in the home also plays a role.

Bullies can also be targets of bullying, the report points out, noting parents are often the last to know their child is bullying others.

The key to addressing bullying comes in the “natural human instinct to connect or attach with others,” the report says, citing the work of Canadian clinical and developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld.

“Neufeld argues that attachment always occurs in a hierarchy: one individual assumes the dominant provider instinct and the other the dependent seeking instinct,” the report says.

Bullying can occur when the dominant party is numb to vulnerable feelings necessary for the caretaking role, according to Neufeld.

Instead of trying to solve bullying by seeking to eliminate power imbalances in the schoolyard, Neufeld argues re-establishing a “village attachment” so that children’s primary attachments are with adults rather than their peers. Peer-to-peer attachments will also be hierarchical but tend to be unstable, the report says.

A proper understanding of attachment could transform the educational system, Neufeld has said, noting parents and educators can establish these primary attachments with children.

“While family environment alone does not determine which children will bully, similar family characteristics are found among many bullies,” the IMFC report concludes. “Children who bully are more likely to come from homes where supervision is less consistent and family conflict more prevalent.

“Government legislation has focused on holding schools accountable for creating safe environments,” it says.

“However, unless educators and parents engage one another little will be accomplished through legislation."

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