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A Voice of Sanity in the World of Anti-Bully Hysteria: Developmental Psychologist Helene Guldberg

by Izzy Kalman May 21, 2009 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying

Bullying has become the number one worry of parents, as recent polls are showing:

Countries throughout the modern world are complaining that bullying is becoming an escalating problem. Meanwhile, these very same countries have been waging an escalating battle against bullying. Amazingly, few professionals in the world see any connection between the intensification of the problem and the intensified efforts to combat the problem. You can do a Google search of critics of the anti-bully movement and, other than my own writings, you will come up with almost nothing.

Bullying is the least controversial social issue on the planet. Every other issue has people on both sides. Yet despite the fact that the anti-bully movement is obviously failing, everyone in the world, with almost no exception, is calling for intensified anti-bullying efforts. Hardly anyone can imagine that there could be anything wrong with anti-bully campaigns.

I recently found an exception: Helene Guldberg, a Norwegian-born developmental psychologist residing and working in England. She has written a book called, Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear. It is dedicated to reducing the hysteria that society, including mental health professionals and organizations, has been promoting regarding our children. Despite the fact that children in the modern world are safer than ever in history, parents worry more than ever about the welfare of their kids. We are overprotecting them from life, raising a generation of what the book calls “cotton wool” children (and I have been calling “emotional marshmallows”). Despite all our worries, the sky hasn’t come crashing down on our heads yet. Our children aren’t developing all that badly.

Truth is, this is not the first or only book of this nature. But I believe it has the distinction of being the only such book that seriously criticizes the anti-bully movement. Dr. Guldberg has a long chapter called “The Bullying Bandwagon.” She says many of the things I have been saying over the years, and says it more professionally. And, in contrast to other psychologists who write about bullying, she thinks like a psychologist rather than a law-enforcement officer.

The following are some excerpts from the chapter, “The Bullying Bandwagon.”

“Today children are pushed to look upon their everyday encounters with their friends or enemies through the prism of potential violence and abuse, and encouraged to seek help from teachers or other adults. This leads to a situation where children can become unwilling to, and incapable of, resolving their own problems with their peers: a process that damages children’s development, and their relationships with each other, far more than the odd stone thrown or insult shouted.”

“Once…a teacher gets involved [in a problem between kids], it becomes an issue of much greater significance, driving a more permanent wedge between the putative victim and that week’s bullies, and making it far harder for the spontaneous dynamics of playground life to resolve themselves.”

“So if the message to children who are being bullied is ‘When bad things happen to you, your life could be destroyed for ever’ could this response not be more damaging to children in the long run than the bullying itself? If we treat children as if they could not possibly cope with hurtful experiences, we are more likely to undermine their confidence and make them less likely to cope with difficult events in the future.”

“In an extreme example of how the desire to protect children from bullying can prevent them from forming relationships altogether, [one school in England] proposed that it should not build a playground. Staff insisted that this would help protect pupils falling victim to playground bullies…A similar trend can be identified in the US, where many schools have already been built without playgrounds.”

“Unless children are given the opportunity to engage with each other without adults hovering over them they won’t really learn the consequences of being clumsy, nasty or thoughtless, or how to cope with good-natured teasing or spiteful and hurtful behaviour.”

In Reclaiming Childhood, Guldberg deals with a lot more than bullying. Using common sense backed by research, she challenges our fears about many aspects of children’s development, such as their risk-taking behaviors, the influence of popular media, electronic communication between kids, the need for perfect parenting, stranger-danger and other issues. If you are a parent and consider stress-reduction a worthwhile expense, this book will be worth every penny!

And if you need to convince your school to stop putting so much effort into counterproductive anti-bullying policies, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better resource than this.

By the way, when Googling Reclaiming Childhood, I was thrilled to discover an earlier book (2003) by the same title written by none other than my college psychology professor, Dr. William Crain of the City College of New York. (He’s still teaching there after close to four decades!) The subtitle, though, is different. His book is called Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be in Our Achievement Oriented Society. (It also happens to be referenced in Dr. Guldberg’s book.) Dr. Crain’s book is geared to reducing parents’ pressure for turning their children into high-achieving adults, showing how these efforts are often counterproductive. He argues that we should let our children enjoy their childhoods, and rely on them to develop according to their biological programming. Mother Nature knew what she was doing. We need to put more trust in her wisdom.

And, as social scientists, we need to get away from our law enforcement approach to children’s behavior and return to a scientific/psychological one that understands our place in the web of life and our biological programming for dealing with it. We do our children no great service by trying to protect them from each other and punishing those who make them upset.


For those readers who aren’t familiar with my work other than through this Psychology Today blog, I would like to inform you that I do more than just criticize the anti-bully movement. I provide better solutions–psychological solutions–and much of what I offer is free on Bullies to Buddies. There are free manuals for kids and for adults that can be used for solving the bullying problem both in school and at home.

More recently, I put a few video clips from my whole-school bullying reduction program, Victim-Proof Your School, on the website. These are a few of the most useful scenes from the program, and you can use them to teach students and teachers how to handle some serious but common problems. I hope you will find them not only useful but also humorous. If you like them, please pass on the links to anyone else you believe will find them of value.

Hope you take the time to watch them!

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