An Exclusive Interview with Bullying Expert Barbara Coloroso

Educator, bullying expert, and noted author Barbara Coloroso will be coming to JFCS’ Parents Place February 7 – 11 to address a timely, yet timeless, issue facing all families and schools: teaching our children to think and act ethically and compassionately. Coloroso, whose book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander is valued by both parents and educators, recently sat down with JFCS to talk about her work.

JFCS: What exactly is bullying? How does it differ from other types of conflicts children have with each other?

Coloroso: Bullying is not a conflict, although we often conflate the two. Conflict is normal, natural, and necessary. Bullying is none of those things. Bullying is utter contempt for another individual or a group of people. Someone who is bullying another person is dehumanizing him or her, making that person into an “it” rather than a “he” or a “she.”

JFCS: How can we tell when bullying is occurring?

Coloroso: Bullying can take many forms. It can be physical, such as beating up a classmate. It can be verbal, such as referring to someone by a racial, religious, or ethnic epithet. And it can be relational, such as shunning or excluding a peer. With the advent of the Internet, there is now cyber bullying, with the spreading of denigrating and hurtful language and images 24/7 throughout the Web.

JFCS: If bullying is not natural, what are its origins?

Coloroso: Bullying is learned behavior. It is often learned at home, where parents may be completely unconscious that they’re engaging in it. They may make an off-hand remark, using a derogatory term to refer to a person or group of people. That in itself is not bullying. But when their children address their peers by that term outside the home—such as on the playground or in school—that is bullying.
Kids often pick bullying up in the community. Unfortunately, we are living in a culture of meanness. We are intolerant of anyone who is different, and we have people in positions of power who bully other groups by name-calling or demonizing them. They are trying to feed on people’s worst fears.

JFCS: Why is there so much media coverage of bullying? Hasn’t it always existed?
Of course, it has always existed. When I was growing up, it was referred to as hazing—nasty pranks that kids inflicted on their peers.

The reason that bullying is getting so much attention today is clear: Kids are dying. We have the young man at Rutgers who was secretly videotaped by his roommate; the girl in South Hadley, Massachusetts, whose peers attacked her as promiscuous; and a number of boys who were taunted because they were perceived to be gay.

JFCS: Does violence on TV and in the movies play a part?

Coloroso: Yes, but it’s not only violence—it’s also humor. If you watch some of the current films, you’ll notice how characters are mocked and put down. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s degrading and diminishing of the human spirit.

JFCS: Are there certain people who are more likely to be bullied?

Coloroso: Anyone can be a target, but people who are discernibly different are more vulnerable. I’m not only speaking of physical characteristics, such as race or ethnic background, though people of color are certainly more vulnerable. I would include children who are perceived to be gay or stand out academically.

Unfortunately, people who are overweight—adults as well as children—are also often the source of ridicule in our society.

JFCS: How do you stop bullying?

Coloroso: You sit down with the person engaged in bullying and make sure that he or she acknowledges it, fixes it, makes amends, and figures out how to prevent it from happening again. This is called restorative justice. And, you make sure that the person who is being bullied feels safe enough to report the bullying and feels cared for. This person needs to hear “I’m here” and “I believe you.”

If the bullying behavior persists, you start the process of restorative justice all over again. You hold bullies accountable every time. This is discipline, not punishment.

I recommend that kids who engage in bullying get involved in some type of community service. It’s important for them to get out of themselves and do something good for others. It can be healing, and it can also help these kids redirect their energy and develop their leadership skills in a positive way.

JFCS: Can people change?

Coloroso: Yes. People are born hard-wired to care. It’s about nurturing it in our children, and it starts at a very young age. When two infants are together in a room and one is crying, the other begins crying in sympathy. A four-year-old who is brought up in a loving home doesn’t have to be asked to share his cookie with another four-year-old.

JFCS: Were you bullied as a child?

Coloroso: I was called “white trash” by my classmates. My teachers also called me by that term as well. I spent a lot of energy trying to be better.

JFCS: How did you get interested in the subject?

Coloroso: I was a special education teacher, and I worked with severely troubled kids—mostly boys who had badly hurt or killed someone. I was interested in understanding how they had become so violent. When a publisher approached me to write a book about bullying, I resisted. But my son said to me, “Mother, write the book so that more kids won’t have to go through what I went through.” My son was short when he started school, and he was also artistic. He ended up doing the illustrations for the book.

JFCS: What happens if bullying goes unchecked?

Coloroso: Bullying is a slippery slope. It’s just a short walk from bullying to hate crimes. A full one-third of teenagers who engage in physical bullying go on to have criminal records as adults.

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