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Healthy Conflict: Another Victim of Bullying?

Jill Singleton
In my Middle School Debate club, students are arguing this week whether bullying should be criminalized. This elective class is designed to help students develop the ability to present a rational, logical position about a given topic and the ability to listen to and respond respectfully to ideas that differ from their own. I think we can all agree that the media has done an effective and comprehensive job of bringing the issue of bullying into the public arena. This step is an important one, as countless individuals have suffered at the hands of those who lack the empathy or skills necessary to live peacefully in society. Schoolyard bullying has been overshadowed by cyber-bullying, a concept none of us ever even dreamed of just a decade ago, and the faceless nature of this crime makes it possible for even the most cowardly individual to cause tremendous social and emotional damage – up to and including episodes ending in major depression and/or suicide. As a result of these tragic stories, many states, including New Jersey, have passed anti-bullying laws, requiring schools to create appropriate policies and procedures for dealing with bullying in its earliest stages. Whether these legislative actions have made a positive impact is an issue of much debate, however, and more time is needed to assess the results.

While media attention has indeed raised awareness about the negative effects of bullying, my colleagues and I have often wondered whether the heightened sensitivity is leading some people to shy away from healthy conflict – a critical and necessary ingredient for children’s growth and development. Conflict teaches valuable skills related to negotiation, self-expression and conflict resolution. Are we providing our children with ample opportunity and modeling for them to develop these skills, or are we eliminating the chance to engage in conflict out of fear that the interaction might lead to bullying? Are we allowing healthy conflict to play itself out in a way that teaches children that solutions are achievable through communication, compromise and the integration of ideas? Calling to mind the recent presidential election, so fraught with character assassination and acrimonious debate while being so void of rigorous and lively dialogue, one can’t help but wonder what our children are learning about the nature of conflict in our society.

Author John Steinbeck said that “All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.” Teaching our children to think for themselves, and to respectfully hear and value the thoughts of others is critical for our shared future. Equally important is the provision of safe and consistent opportunities to change our minds as a result of being exposed to new ideas and experiences – a process necessary to authentic education. “Do not think of knocking out another person’s brains because he differs in opinion from you,” advised educational reformer Horace Mann. “It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.” Our children need opportunities to engage in healthy, respectful conflict as a means to figure out who they are, what they believe, and how their ideas are changing. Conflict provides a forum for the sharing of diverse opinions and ideas, a process that leads to renewed thinking, fortified values, and new ideas.

So what is the difference between bullying and healthy conflict? Bullying always requires an imbalance in power, is marked by repeated and purposeful behavior that is severe and causes an individual reasonable fear of substantial detrimental effect to one’s person or property, or interferes with a student’s ability to learn. Conflict, on the other hand, occurs infrequently and is characterized by a balance in power and a lack of serious trauma to the victim. While bullying should never be tolerated, children should be given opportunities to try to negotiate conflicts on their own, even those involving age-old name-calling and teasing; caring adults should intervene only when necessary, and then not to “rescue” but rather to empower children to speak up for themselves and to stand up for what they know is right.

At All Saints, all teaching staff are trained and skilled at helping students negotiate conflicts when they arise. Let’s face it, name-calling and teasing are never going to be negotiated away; it is incumbent upon us to teach our children how to manage these situations. Even the youngest students in Nursery are taught to “use their words” to solve problems or to express dissatisfaction with a classmate who has said something that is unkind or unfair. Students at all grade levels can be seen negotiating conflict and practicing diplomacy skills that will serve them well in their personal and academic lives. These skills and behaviors are what will ultimately insure an appreciation for the open exchange of ideas and opinions, an unwillingness to allow others to be treated unfairly, and an environment in which it will be impossible for bullying to find even the weakest foothold.

Questions? Comments? Ideas? I’d love to hear them! Email me: jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com
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