Editorial: Bullying has no cure - but we can build resistance

"Some day I'll be living in a big ol' cityAnd all you're ever gonna be is mean." Bullied songstress Taylor Swift articulates the fervent hopes of young people everywhere: that they will go places when they grow up while their tormentors will go nowhere.

But they can forget justice and any notion of what goes around comes around: a bully's lot, it appears, is a jolly good one. "Bullies are actually pretty healthy, quite strong, and do pretty well in later life," says Dieter Wolke, professor of psychology at the University of Warwick and author of the kind of study that could well turn current thinking on its head.

We know much about the bullied - they can suffer terribly, both physically and mentally, leaving emotional scars that can last a lifetime - but there has been less research into those doing the bullying.

It's not unusual to get some surprising results in this area: a study last year from the University of Texas found that anti-bullying programmes were having the opposite effect of what was intended - exposing bullies to different techniques and thus teaching them new ways to bully. And schools that boast of a zero-tolerance approach don't fare too well either. According to the American Psychological Association, despite the stiff words, these schools typically have a higher incidence of bullying, more suspensions and exclusions, and lower overall academic achievement.

What is even more surprising is that the traditional advice of leaving children to do things independently and fight a few of their own battles may well be right after all. Overprotective and anxious parents can undermine their offspring, communicating to them that they are unable to cope without intervention. This fails to equip young people with the self-sufficiency and confidence to deal with bullying when it occurs. Children who do not learn how to negotiate minor conflicts do not develop strategies to cope with major events in later life, Professor Wolke says. "It's like you don't get an inoculation: a small dose given so that you can fight the disease."

This fits neatly with recent moves towards teaching grit and resilience. Whether you like your inspiration to come from Latin phrases such as "Per aspera ad astra" (a rough road leads to the stars) or from a bullying victim such as Christina Aguilera ("The roughest road often leads to the top"), it all amounts to the same thing: dealing with a bit of adversity toughens you up and enables you to succeed. This is why advocates of character teaching say it helps to develop traits such as perseverance, self-control, compassion, optimism and improved well-being, all of which equip children to succeed in life.

It may make for uncomfortable reading but there is much to learn from the popular bullies (as opposed to the bully-victims who bully because they have been bullied themselves). These are the high-status children with good social intelligence who are skilled at manipulating their peers. Shepherded with care, they can go on to great things.

As bullying expert Dr Carrie Herbert summed up beautifully at the launch of Professor Wolke's research in the House of Commons, "a leader is a bully with empathy".


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