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Interview on Bullying with Prof. Helene Guldberg

by Izzy Kalman June 5, 2009 Psychology Today Blog, A Psychological Solution to Bullying

In my last blog entry, I wrote about a recently published book, Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, by developmental psychologist, Helene Guldberg. This book, as far as I can tell, is the only one so far in existence that seriously challenges the wisdom and effectiveness of the anti-bully movement. She has discovered, as i have long ago, that you can’t challenge this movement without getting massively attacked. Dr. Guldberg was nice enough to be wiliing to answer my questions about the anti-bully movement and her experiences being critized for her views.

Izzy: Do you know of any social scientists criticizing the anti-bully movement?

Helene: I don’t know of any social scientists criticizing the anti-bullying movement. There are some who have investigated the efficacy of anti-bullying campaigns, admitting that there is little evidence of their efficacy. Lead author of a study published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Professor Peter Fonagy, from University College London, conceded: ‘while school anti-bullying programmes are widely used, there have been few controlled trials of their effectiveness’ (Fonagy et al, 2009). And Associate professor at the University of Ottawa, J. David Smith, points out ‘The majority of programs evaluated to date have yielded nonsignificant outcomes’ (Smith et al, 2004) [detailed references provided following interveiw].

Izzy: Why do you think there is so little criticism of the anti-bully movement from academic psychologists despite its apparent failure to reduce bullying in schools?

Helene: Bullying has become one of those taboo issues that many believe one just shouldn’t question. The notion that children can be damaged for life as a result of insults hurled at them by their fellow pupils has become accepted as common sense. As a result, the raft of behavioural codes that now regulate playground behaviour, and the increasingly interventionist role of adults in children’s disputes, is seen as a necessary and humane development that should not be questioned.

Sadly there are not enough academics that are prepared to tackle controversial issues and question current orthodoxy.

Izzy: I read a news article about your book. The article was called ‘Bullying’ can be good for you – leave pupils to sort out spats, says expert. Most of the space of the article was dedicated to critics of your ideas about bullying. What is the general response you have gotten to your views on bullying?

Helene: As the idea that children should never be faced with potentially emotionally damaging situations is getting stronger and stronger, it is no surprise that it is the chapter on bullying that has caused the greatest controversy. The Daily Mail ran with the headline ‘Bullying can be good for Kids’ – the day after my book launch, and the article was republished in the Daily Telegraph, Hindustan Times, Las Ultimas Noticias in Chile and other papers in India, Pakistan and China. Also, I was inundated with requests from local, national and international radio stations wanting me to explain my case.

It is interesting that the initial response of radio producers and journalists was one of disbelief: they could not comprehend that anyone should question the need for anti-bullying campaigns. But once we debated the issue they often started to accept that maybe this is an issue that does require more critical debate. The response of some readers and listeners were rather polarised: either they were incredibly abusive – for example suggestion I needed to be punched in the face – or grateful that at last someone was willing to question the obsession with bullying. Also, I have been pleasantly surprised by the positive response I have received from many teachers – at the talks I have been doing – who feel that the anti-bullying campaigns have gone far too far.

Izzy: How do you handle the criticism?

I ignore the personal attacks. The attacks often come from those who claim they have ‘been scarred for life’ by bullying – and as a result would like to see me picked on, victimized and ridiculed, to see whether I still think ‘bullying can be good for you’. I have never said that bullying is good for children: my argument is that some children can come out of frightening and hurtful experiences to become stronger and more confident, while for others it was a very nasty and unpleasant experiences that has done them no good. But that does not mean it necessarily has damaged them for life.

What is sad is that so many have internalized this idea of ‘being scarred for life’. This is a phrase that is used incessantly by anti-bullying campaigners and I do believe that if we keep telling children they can be scarred for life by bullying it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadly, those who have been rather abusive in reaction to what I am saying may have been damaged for life by their hurtful childhood experiences. But maybe they wouldn’t have been if they hadn’t internalized the very negative message of today’s anti-bullying campaigns.

The more constructive criticisms have been useful as it has helped me refine my arguments. I am not saying that adults should never intervene to help a child who is being incessantly picked on and attacked by other children. But I am warning that there is a real danger that by intervening an adult can make the situation worse. It both can blow the incident out of proportion and create a more permanent wedge between the ‘victim’ and the ‘bullies’. Also, it may do children no favours in the long run as it undermines the child’s ability to manage the situation themselves. Therefore we really should have more trust in teachers who know their pupils, to make the really hard decisions. Of course, some teachers will ignore situations that they shouldn’t ignore. But the negative consequences of anti-bullying campaigns far outweigh the negative consequences of teachers who haven’t got the capacity to appreciate when things have gone out of hand and they need to do something to try to resolve the situation.

Izzy: Have any other chapters of your book been criticized as much?

Helene: No, not at all.

Izzy: Why not?

Helene: As I point out in Reclaiming Childhood, while some voices in recent years have spoken up to challenge the safety-first culture surrounding children today, drawing attention to the problem of raising a generation of cosseted, ‘cotton wool’ kids and arguing the need for children to be able to take more physical risks, one rarely hears any objection to the notion that children increasingly need to be protected from the ‘emotional risks’ posed to them by their peers in the form of bullying. It therefore wasn’t surprising to me that the chapter on bullying provoked such a reaction.

Izzy: Your name sounds Jewish. If so, what was your family’s experience during the Holocaust?

Helene: My name’s Norwegian. As far as I know, it is not Jewish.

Izzy: I have heard the Holocaust referred to as “bullying”? Have you? How does that make you feel?

Helene: I haven’t. But if it was I must say that would be very insulting. One cannot compare childhood spats with the systematic killing of millions of Jewish people.

I would like to sincerely thank Dr. Helene Guldberg for taking the time to answer my questions, and I invite my readers to look into her work. She is the Managing Editor of a fascinating website called spiked, and her writings there are both thoughtful and thought-provoking. She is currently working on a book to be published in 2010, ‘Just Another Ape?’ that challenges much of the recent scientific thinking on the similarity between apes and human. She claims that the difference between humans and the other apes is far greater than what has been presented to us in recent years by the world’s leading primatologists and evolutionary psychologists.


David Smith, Barry H. Schneider, Peter K. Smith, Katerina Ananiadou (2004), ‘The Effectiveness of Whole-School Antibullying Programs: A Synthesis of Evaluation Research’, School Psychology Review, Vol. 33, 2004

Peter Fonagy, Stuart W. Twemlow, Eric M. Vernberg, Jennifer Mize Nelson, Edward J. Dill, Todd D. Little, and John A. Sargent (2009) ‘A cluster randomized controlled trial of child-focused psychiatric consultation and a school systems-focused intervention to reduce aggression’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry Volume 50 Issue 5, Pages 607 – 616

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