ScoutingMarch-April 2002

Family Talk Family Talk

Scouting and the Bully

By Donald C. Bross, J.D., PH.D.
Illustration by Joel Snyder

Scouting's values-based programs provide parents and Scout leaders with effective tools that address the causes of, and help provide solutions to, the persistent problem of bullying among young people.

Familiar moments have played out in middle and high schools for years. Boys and girls are shoved aside in hallways or their books are knocked from their hands as they pass from one classroom to another.

It's a typical example of bullying behavior, defined as a person being "habitually cruel to others weaker than himself." To the child who is a target, the experience can be a source of profound resentment, especially if the harassment is repeated in many ways and places.

Bullies perceive certain individuals as easy targets, poorly equipped to defend themselves. Often viewed as different from the majority in ways that can range from physical appearance or mannerisms to religion or national origin, they offer convenient focal points for a bully's aggressive tactics.

And the "hurt feelings" from such encounters can lead to tragic outcomes, as recent news headlines attest. Intimidation and bullying reportedly played a part in embittering many of the students who later murdered classmates or teachers, the experiences of being threatened possibly contributing to their hatred and anger.

Awareness and response

Without help and support from peers and from concerned and knowledgeable adults, as well as other resources, such as awareness training, a young person cannot quickly or easily develop effective responses to the constant physical and psychological intimidation of bullies. Of these sources of defense, peers who have the awareness to recognize bullying and the character and integrity to stand against it can have the most immediate impact on curtailing such behavior.

Scouting's values-based program of character development and leadership training can play an important role in preparing youth to provide this type of peer support. Young people with the moral fiber to take action that protects a victim, while others turn away, typically reflect the values they've experienced in their daily life. Not surprisingly, many students who have intervened in school situations to protect vulnerable classmates or younger boys and girls from bullying have also been very active in Scouting.

Scouting's dedication to these values is evident in the BSA's determination to make its programs a source of safe havens, free of hazing and other actions of intimidation. Young people are allowed to develop strength, courage, and the mental toughness that is dedicated to helping others rather than hurting them.

Changing behavior patterns

In addition to helping produce individuals of character who will not tolerate bullying, Scouting can help both the potential victim and the bully to overcome the behavior patterns that lead to bullying situations.

Those children who are likely to become a target of bullying often find it difficult to make friends, and have a sense of social isolation. And bullies, especially those who have themselves been victims of bullying, also feel isolated from society, resulting in problem behavior such as smoking and drinking.

In Scouting, a young person can develop strengths—like self-esteem from advancement in rank and participation in outdoor activities, and social and leadership skills from interaction with fellow patrol and troop members—to avoid becoming a target of bullying.

Likewise, a youth with the background and personal history that leads to bullying behavior can find in Scouting the leadership experiences and personal values that turn his negative energies and aggressive inclinations in a more positive direction.

The Scout leader's role

Bullying is not confined to school settings and can also occur in Scouting situations. And to ensure that the Scouting experience does not include bullying, the BSA has strict rules and regulations as well as extensive training programs, all directed at preventing such behavior. For example, current training videos on child protection include examples of coercion by older boys or adults in settings both within and outside recognized Boy Scout activity settings.

Scouting provides many opportunities for rigorous play and competition that don't lead to domination, subjugation, or complete disregard of the vulnerabilities of others. However, bullying can occur when young men are put into leadership roles that enable them to assume a position of power over a weaker person.

Mild examples of overreaching by boy leaders are not infrequent. When they occur, troop adult and junior leaders have an opportunity to address the issue in a positive way by providing examples of appropriate leadership.

More severe instances of bullying behavior can occur when a boy is perceived as "different" or in some way deserving of rejection or disapproval.

Adult leader recognition of a bullying problem can lead to thoughtful and effective intervention. The step after stopping any bullying is to find a time to take the bully aside and try to understand why he acts the way he does. What makes him wish to attack others? Why does he act so aggressively toward someone who is different?

Sometimes a bully in school or Scouting is the victim of similar behavior at home. The bullying child might simply not understand how to relate to others, especially people who are not like him. He might deny that what he is doing could be hurtful to others, or minimize his behavior by suggesting that the other boy deserves to be treated negatively.

Once his behavior is better understood, he will have an opportunity to see how his actions interfere with his leadership effectiveness and are counterproductive to achieving his goals.

A former Scoutmaster and Webelos den leader, Donald C. Bross, J.D., Ph.D., is director of education and legal counsel, Kempe Children's Center, University of Colorado School of Medicine, Denver, Colo. He thanks George P. Garmany, M.D.; Sarah Corbally; Terri James Banks, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.; and Gail Ryan, M.A., for their assistance in preparing this article.

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