How to solve the bullying problem Print
Word on Fire
Written by Fr. Robert Barron   
Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

It is very difficult indeed to watch the documentary Bully without experiencing both an intense sadness and a feeling of helplessness.

The film opens with the heartbreaking ruminations of a father whose son committed suicide after being brutally bullied by his classmates.

We hear similar stories throughout the film, and we also watch and listen as kids are pestered, belittled, mocked, and in some cases, physically assaulted, just because they are different.

The most memorable figure in the movie is a young man, around 12, named Alex. He seems to be a good-natured kid, happy in the embrace of his family, but because he’s a bit uncoordinated, geeky, and odd-looking, his fellow students mercilessly pick on him. Alex’s daily ride on the school bus is like something out of Dante’s Inferno.

Adults are clueless

What would be funny, if it weren't so tragic, is the cluelessness of the school officials (and adults in general) who should be doing something about the problem.

We watch the vice principal of Alex’s school as she deals with aggressive students and tries to mollify Alex’s parents. What we hear is a pathetic mixture of self-serving remarks, boys-will-be-boys platitudes, and, worst of all, a tendency to blame the victim.

I will admit, however, that I sympathized with her confusion when, at one point, she gazed into the camera lens and sighed, “I just don’t know what to do.” A lot of the adults in the documentary seemed to share that sentiment.

Someone with answers

I know someone who knows what to do. Some time ago, I reviewed a book by Dr. Leonard Sax called Why Gender Matters, an incisive study of why boys and girls benefit from very different approaches to education and character formation.

Dr. Sax sent me a copy of his study titled Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. The book examines the problem of the “slacker dude,” the teenager who would rather watch video games than attend class, or the 20-something who would rather lounge around his parents’ home than start an ambitious career.

Transforming boys into men

With the problem of bullying in mind, I would like to focus on one chapter of Boys Adrift titled “The Revenge of the Forsaken Gods.” Dr. Sax bemoans the fact that our culture has largely forgotten the subtle art of transforming boys into men.

Despite (or perhaps because of) our scientific predilection, we think that this process just happens naturally. Our “primitive” ancestors knew that it did not, and they developed rituals of initiation, designed to shock boys out of their natural narcissism and habits of self-protection into moral and spiritual maturity.

Whether we are talking about the Navajo, Masai warriors, or Orthodox Jews, traditional cultures understand that boys have to be brought through a period of trial during which they learn the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice.

Dr. Sax observes that many great American authors -- Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Studs Terkel, James Dickey -- wrote persuasively about this topic. Many great films, from The Hustler, On the Waterfront, and Rebel Without a Cause to Braveheart and Gladiator, dramatically display the process by which a boy becomes a heroic man of selflessness and courage.

The principal element in the initiation process is a mature man who embodies the virtues to which the boy aspires. Men of valor, charity, ambition, and grace transform boys into men of valor, charity, ambition and grace. When this mentoring dynamic is lost, Dr. Sax argues, the result is boys adrift.

Why boys turn to bullying

Now you might be wondering what all this has to do with the phenomenon of bullying. One reason why boys turn into bullies is that they have no one around to turn them into men.

Boys are filled with energies meant to be channeled in a positive direction, toward protecting the innocent and building up the society. Without strong male role models and without a disciplined process of initiation into maturity, these energies remain either unfocussed (as in the case of slackers) or directed toward violence and the exploitation of the weak (as in the case of bullies).

Dr. Sax comments that you might not be able to turn a bully into a flower child, but with the right male mentoring, you could certainly turn him into a knight.

If a son of yours is either bullied or becoming a bully, I would strongly recommend that you read Boys Adrift and, above all, that you introduce your son to a strong, morally upright, focused, and courageous male mentor -- fast.

Fr. Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and is the rector/president of Mundelein Seminary near Chicago. Learn more at