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Does Bullying Your Kid for Bullying Work?

Harsh punishment doesn’t actually stop kids from bullying, but that sort of nuance was lost on Bryan Thornhill this week, a Virginia dad who, in response to his 10-year-old son getting kicked off the bus for bullying, is now making the kid run a mile to school every morning for a week to “teach him a lesson.”

“This right here is called parenting,” Thornhill says in the video he made of driving behind his child in the rain while the kid slogs it out to school. “If you don’t know what it’s like, here you go. Teach your child a lesson. You don’t have to kill ’em, you don’t always have to beat ’em. But sometimes it sucks for them, and that’s what teaches ‘em.”

Excellent point, sir: you don’t always have to beat ’em. On occasion you can just use a punitive method of discipline that experts have not only proven doesn’t work, but that can actually make the problem worse. But hey, who cares when you just want to be King Shit of Tough Love Mountain?

“Indeed, punitive responses — even if they’re euphemistically called ‘consequences’ — are often not merely ineffective but actively counterproductive,” parenting/child behavior expert and author Alfie Kohn writes at Ed Week on the futility of using harsh punishment for bullying. “To cite only one in a long line of empirical investigations, an eight-year longitudinal study published in 2005 found that punitive discipline was subsequently associated with more antisocial behavior, less prosocial behavior, and increased levels of anxiety.”

And it’s not just Kohn who argues that doing something bad to someone who did something bad is a very bad idea if you actually want them to stop being bad. Kohn cites the work of educator Barbara Coloros, who wrote The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander, and said that “Punishment teaches the bully to be more aggressive and hurtful. He will undoubtedly master the art of doing his bullying in ways that are sneaky or ‘under the radar’ of even the most observant and aware adults. More important, punishment degrades, humiliates, and dehumanizes the children who are its objects.”

Kohn goes on to explain that harsh consequences for bullying amount to bullying the child to correct them, while strongly reinforcing to the child that what works is — wait for it — bullying. What’s more, it’s exactly this type of punishment — of an authoritarian nature, which is the least effective model of parenting because it’s strict, overbearing, and very high on the juice of “Because I said so” — that may actually be a contributing factor in childhood bullying in the first place. Authoritarian parenting — not to be confused with authoritative — can create low self-esteem, the association of obedience with love, and behavior problems, because it’s so strict and disciplinarian in approach.

In other words, as Kohn writes, “traditional discipline is a kind of bullying.” I wish we could check in with the daughter of that cool dad who found a rant on Facebook she posted about him and responded by filming himself shooting her laptop full of bullets. That was very cool and she is probably doing great.

Thornhill cites a few things to back up his reasoning, and like many badly executed ideas, they contain a seed of something well-intentioned. One good thing he says is that he and his family don’t tolerate bullying. Another good thing he said is hey, the kid is also getting exercise, which is undoubtedly a good thing. “Don’t be a friend; be a parent,” Thornhill declares correctly. “That’s what children need these days. Parenting.” Thornhill’s son told him he was the “Best daddy ever” because he busts his butt when he gets in trouble, so that’s good right?

To be clear, I can’t judge this guy’s parenting wholesale by seeing his video. I believe this dude truly loves his kids. I believe he wants his kid to act right. I believe he believes he’s teaching the kid how to be a good person. And of course, exercise is great. And so are consequences.

We should also give Thornhill credit for being rare among parents in the fact that he actually acknowledges his kid is a bully. “Ninety-nine percent of parents will say, ‘No way, not my kid’ and get defensive,” family therapist Jennifer Cannon told Parenting.

But all that said, there’s a way to deal with bullying that doesn’t involve being a dick, and while we can’t know what sort of conversation Thornhill had, if any, to investigate why his kid was bullying, nor do we know if the kid has bullied before, or was bullied himself, it appears Thornhill chose the Dick Method.

But figuring out the why of bullying is important, because a big part of dealing with a bully is teaching the bully to be more empathic. You’re supposed to figure out not just why they did it, but also encourage them to imagine how the other kid felt, and what it looks like to treat people with respect.

Experts told Parenting that kids usually bully for a few reasons: to maintain popularity or power, or because for whatever reason, the kid either feels like they’ve been “dealt a bad hand” in life, or were bullied by other kids first. It could also be issues with impulse control, or because they think it will help them gain acceptance from peers.

As for what to do when your kid is the bully, experts agree that there should absolutely be consequences, but here are some examples of those:

Depending on the circumstances, you can eliminate something your child cherishes so the consequence will be significant, like taking away your child’s cell phone, eliminating or reducing TV or video game time, or preventing participation in a social outing. Or, better yet, turn the bullying incident into a teachable moment by discussing positive ways your child can handle future situations that lead to good consequences. Have your child write a paragraph describing what it would feel like to be in the other child’s shoes or write an apology letter.

Other examples of so-called healthy consequences experts cite taking away a privilege related to the bullying itself. If your kid is bullying during sports, not playing sports might be a consequence.

Shaming, emphatically, is not recommended, because as Kohn notes, it’s just another form of bullying. “For instance, they make their child wear a sign and stand on a street corner,” Sherri Gordon writes at Very Well Family. “Or, they take an embarrassing picture of their child and post it on social media with a lengthy explanation of their child’s transgressions. While these actions have attracted media attention, they are not useful discipline strategies. Instead, kids learn that it is acceptable to embarrass and humiliate others. Additionally, shaming is a form of bullying and should not be used to discipline.”

Even anti-bullying laws or zero-tolerance policies at school don’t necessarily curb bullying, some experts argue. While all 50 states have an anti-bullying law on the books, those laws vary in verbiage, ranging from stating that bullying is simply prohibited, to sometimes bringing criminal charges against bullies.

A common punishment is suspension, and Thornhill said his son was suspended for three days from riding the bus after his bullying spree. “While sending students home from school does communicate that the bullying behavior is unacceptable, it does little to teach them how to improve their behavior,” law professor Emily Suski writes at The Conversation. “When students are suspended or expelled from school, they typically sit home with nothing to do. This is unlikely to stop bullying.”

Suski argues that the reason it does little to address bullying is because it only treats the symptom and not the cause — the behavioral or emotional problems that cause bullying in the first place. Interventions that do work, and some states are implementing them, such as Nevada, hire social workers to help children build empathy and foster the social skills that reduce bullying.

All of the above will get you much closer to helping correct a kid’s bullying than just running in the rain for a week. Sure, it’s a healthy consequence by the most literal definition, but try building empathy first, and if you want your kid to run, maybe sign him up for track?

“He’ll either be fast or obedient,” Thornhill joked about the positive benefits of his harsh punishment. Maybe, but either way, he’ll still be a bully.