TTUAC: The Bully Sets Out to Prevent Bullying

To Train Up A Child, chapter 16

It is worth noting that Michael Pearl’s chapter on bullies only covers how to handle bullies inside the family. Perhaps this is because his children were homeschooled and, one can only assume, limited in their contact with other children. It is in some sense refreshing that Michael acknowledges the existence of inter-sibling bullying. I know homeschooling parents who do not, who insist that because their children are homeschooled they do not have to deal with bullies. Not so.

IS EVERYONE HAVING FUN?

One of the rules–more of a principle–in our home is: “If it is not fun for all, it is not fun at all.” Where there is more than one child, good honest sparring sometimes degenerates into bullying. We kept hands off as much as possible. If the kids were having a social conflict, we tried to let them work through it. A pecking order is inevitable, but if it got out of hand or they came to us, then we would step in to arbitrate.

This rule Michael states does not fit well with what either he or Debi have written about marriage. Remember the crabbing expedition Michael dragged Debi on during their honeymoon? What happened to “if it is not fun for all, it is not fun at all” in that case?

I have to wonder, what does Michael mean when he states that “a pecking order is inevitable”? How much bullying is he okay with before he considers things to be “out of hand”? A pecking order is a hierarchy of status. If such a thing has developed among your children, you have a problem. Perhaps this is a symptom of family size. I have only two children. I’m not entirely sure what a pecking order would look like with just two children—one of them constantly picking on the other, perhaps? But in that case, again, that would be a problem.

BLOWING UP

Let’s create a likely scenario: One of the girls is trying to blow up a balloon while the brother, several years older (who is normally very congenial with his sisters), is preventing her from accomplishing her task and laughing at her helpless protests. It starts out with her involved in the game, but she soon tires and starts to earnestly resist. He is having such fun that he continues with increased vigor to thwart her efforts. She is getting aggravated and complaining. He laughs louder. She starts physically resisting, jerking away, swinging her elbows and yelling, “Stop it!” He doggedly pursues his goal of proving his prowess as chief-balloon-deflator. “OK, What’s the problem?” Father asks. “Oh nothing, we’re just playing,” he says. She protests, “He won’t let me blow up my balloon.” So, it is time for a little training and reproof.

My two children have just gotten old enough for a scenario like this to occur. Usually, in their case, it goes both ways, and when one of them is getting in the other’s way, and the problem is one-way, it’s usually the younger one who is the aggressor.

Michael first outlines what he calls the wrong approach:

THE WRONG APPROACH

The wrong way to handle this would be to impatiently yell, “Give her the balloon so she will shut up and get out of here; I can’t hear myself think!” He would toss it over with an “I beat you” sneer; and she would try to blow it up in his presence to prove her victory. They would continue to silently compete until another opportunity for mischief arose. This would happen between them about thirty times a day. You might switch them two or three times, to no effect. She would become a whining tattletale, and he would become a sulking bully. You are functioning like a referee who came expecting a fight and is there to keep it fair, instead of functioning as a teacher of righteousness.

I’m going to have to agree with Michael here. That is definitely the wrong approach. That said, I’ve often been bothered by Michael’s absolutism about results. I don’t think that response, while definitely not a good response, necessarily guarantees that the younger sister will become a “whining tattletale” and the older brother a “sulking bully.”

I’m also concerned about the use of the word “tattletale.” If a girl is being tormented by her older brother, it would not be wrong for her to go to her parents to resolve the problem. Certainly, if she could resolve it herself that would be ideal—she’d be honing her conflict resolution skills. But (and remember that this chapter is about bullying) that is not always possible, and we should want our children to learn to go to the authorities if someone is harming them. As a parent, I get that kids sometimes come and “tell” on their siblings for no good reason. But I think that can be handled without teaching children that “telling” automatically make them a meany “tattletale.”

So, what is the right approach, according to Michael?

THE RIGHT APPROACH

Try this approach. Calmly say, “What’s going on here?” He responds, “Oh nothing we’re just playing.” Daddy says, “Sister, are you having fun?” She says, “No, he won’t let me blow up my balloon.” Daddy says to the boy, “Are you having fun?” He looks abashed and says, “Well, we were just playing.” Daddy asks, “Brother, was sister having fun?” “No, I guess not.” “Could you tell that she wasn’t having fun?” “Well, I guess so.” “What do you mean, you guess so? Did you or did you not think she was having fun?” “Well, I knew she wasn’t having fun.” “Were you having fun when your sister was suffering?” Silence. “Can you have fun by making someone else unhappy?” Silence. He looks at the floor. “Look at me. How would you like it if someone bigger than you treated you like that?” “I wouldn’t,” he answers. Then I would say my famous lines, “If everyone is not having fun then it is not fun.” “Son, you know Hitler and his men had fun when others were suffering. They laughed while boys and girls cried in pain. Do you want to grow up to be like Hitler?” In complete brokenness, he says, “No Daddy, I don’t want to be like Hitler. I didn’t mean to make her sad. Sister, I am sorry.” What great training! The brother and sister will go away bonded and sympathetic. The sister forgives because she has seen his repentance and feels sorry for his grief. She is drawn to him. He will be more protective of her. They both have been restored.

Hmm. While I appreciate that Michael’s solution isn’t simply to whip the boy, I have a problem with this approach. Namely, it seems very focused on shame. Note the number of times the boy is silent or looks at the floor. Telling his son that he is being like Hitler is a bit much. Further, I’m skeptical of the claim that this shame-based response will make the siblings closer. For example, if this is something that has happened before, the girl might be skeptical of her brother’s apology—and her brother could still feel resentful at getting in trouble.

Again, I don’t want to be too hard on Michael here. He’s written enough horrible things in the other chapters of his book, it’s not like every chapter has to be terrible through and through for the book to be a bad book. Indeed, if every chapter were unreasonably sadistic, the book wouldn’t have the audience it does; it is in part because Michael occasionally says things that appear reasonable that so many are willing to listen to him, and give the rest of what he says the benefit of the doubt.

Perhaps the underlying problem here, though, is that Michael is acting as though all children are the same, and react in the same way. They’re not, and they don’t.

If I were to take the exact approach he outlines in that paragraph with my oldest child, she would burst in to tears and run to her room. Anything that seems awkward or embarrassing, any hint of feeling shamed, sends her into a spiral; when that happens I have to wait until later, when she is more composed, and bring the issue up again in a more careful way. It’s not that she isn’t listening—she is. It’s just that it doesn’t take much to get through to her, and any more than that quickly becomes painful for her.

If I were to take Michael’s approach with my younger child, my son would give the “correct” responses, but would be sullen and angry. This sort of inquisitional, shame-based approach simply does not work with him. The best approach to take with him is to sit next to him on the couch and simply talk to him about what happened. That quality time helps him listen, and makes him feel more connected with you, the parent. Being oppositional simply makes him close up.

This leads to another issue—oftentimes when children are acting out with each other, there is a reason for that. My children usually act out either when they’re bored and on top of each other or when they feel neglected by their parent and are looking for attention. A long drawn-out punitive or shame-based response is rarely helpful. Indeed, when their fighting is mutual rather than one-way (as it usually is) I don’t always even reprimand them. Instead, I separate them, or start them on a craft or project, or turn on a movie or music for them to dance to (again, they’re usually bored). If I think one of them needs more attention, I’ll resolve the immediate issue and then take that one by my side.

It’s good that Michael addresses inter-sibling bullying, in other words, but he does so so briefly and in a one-dimensional fashion, offering a single approach for use as a universal model when children are far from universal in their responses. He also doesn’t acknowledge that inter-sibling squabbling or bullying might have other causes that need addressing, and not just training in righteousness.

Michael finishes the chapter with this:

Your reproof will only produce repentance if the boy sees a genuineness in you. If he detects in you any lack of the benevolence you advocate, he will not repent–only become harder, more bitter.

If he has taken offense at the way you have talked to Mother, he will not experience repentance until you express the same. If the boy does not show repentance after it is clear he understands the issues, a spanking would be in order, then further reproof and reasoning. If there is still no repentance issuing in forgiveness and love to his sister, then it becomes clear he has a deeper, more long term problem.

Michael writes that if the boy in his example does not listen to the approach he outlined, he should be spanked. My son is one who would not respond well to the antagonistic, interrogation-like approach Michael outlined, but a spanking would not help. In fact, it would make things worse. Michael appears to want to change not simply the unwanted behavior but the child’s internal processes (namely, to make the child more empathetic); his suggestion that parents should turn to physical violence if reason does not work serves at cross purposes to this goal.

More to the point, it is extremely difficult to square this with the way Michael treats Debi in the stories in Debi’s book, Created To Be His Help Meetand with what he advocates elsewhere in this book, where he advises parents to sit on disobedient children and beat them until they are completely submissive. There is no benevolence in this.

Have a look at this passage from chapter 13, on attitude training. Here Michael addresses what parents should do if they spank a child and it does not appear to work:

Some have asked, “But what if the child only screams louder, gets madder?” Know that if he is accustomed to getting his unrestricted way, you can expect just such a response. He will just continue to do what he has always done to get his way. It is his purpose to intimidate you and make you feel like a crud pile. Don’t be bullied. Give him more of the same. On the bare legs or bottom, switch him eight or ten licks; then, while waiting for the pain to subside, speak calm words of rebuke. If the crying turns to a true, wounded, submissive whimper, you have conquered; he has submitted his will. If the crying is still defiant, protesting and other than a response to pain, spank him again. If this is the first time he has come up against someone tougher than he, it may take a while. He must be convinced that you have truly altered your expectations.

Notice that Michael advises the parent not to let the child they are hitting bully them, seemingly with no self-awareness at all. It rather makes you wonder about his understanding of the term “bully.”

Michael is on to something when he suggests that a child will not listen to you if he perceives you to be a hypocrite. Kids detect double standards, and they detect them quickly. Your children are unlikely to listen to you if they do not respect you, and they are unlikely to respect you if you treat them badly. And yet, Michael’s entire approach is fraught with hypocrisy. He sets out in this chapter to teach children not to bully their siblings, and yet throughout this book he advises parents to bully their children.

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