A Faith-Based Solution to Bullying
About the Guest
Whether done in a school yard or online, it hurts to be bullied. But there's one man who is doing something about it. Paul Coughlin, Founder of The Protectors, a faith-based solution to bullying, talks with Dennis Rainey about his program and how it trains kids to respond when they see another person being attacked. Coughlin explains that we're not required to overlook bad behavior or take revenge, but that there are things we can do to stop the persecution.
Whether done in a school yard or online, it hurts to be bullied.
A Faith-Based Solution to Bullying
Bob: As our children are heading back to school, some of them are heading back to bullying. Is there a difference between being picked on and being bullied? When, as a parent, do you step in? Here’s Paul Coughlin:
Paul: We should probably start with a definition of bullying because a lot of us think it’s about anger management, miscommunication, misunderstanding. It’s really the superior use of power with the intention to harm another person over a period of time. It is an ongoing campaign of cruelty. It is highly predatory. Bullies are highly selective of who they attack, when, and how.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today® for Thursday, August 25th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. How can a mom and a dad prepare a son or a daughter for the possibility of bullying in the coming school year? When do you step in? We’re going to talk about that today.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I know this happened to our guest. Did this ever happen to you when you were growing up?
Dennis: You bet. I was in the second grade, maybe third, and I was walking home from school one day. Mark and his thug buddy tried to beat me up and feed me a sparrow.
Dennis: Oh yeah. A dead sparrow was there on the sidewalk and, you know, I was younger and outnumbered. I didn’t eat it.
Bob: I’m glad to hear that.
I was in the seventh grade and the first year at junior high. I walked into the boys’ bathroom, and there was Keith. Keith said, “Give me your lunch money.” I didn’t know what to do. Keith was bigger than I was and he said, “Give me your lunch money.”
So, I don’t remember if I gave it to him or not, but . . .
Dennis: You were held up in the boys’ restroom?
Bob: In the boys’ bathroom at junior high. I went home and I talked to my mom about it – I remember that. I said, “What do I do?” She said, “You just tell him ‘no’.” I said, “They might hit me.” She said, “If they do, then you go tell the principal that they hit you.” I thought, “OK.”
So the next time Keith came, I said, “No,” and he didn’t hit me. We wound up being pretty good friends. That’s how that worked.
Dennis: Well, nine out of ten elementary-aged students say they’ve been bullied by their peers. I had no idea it was that prevalent but, if you think about it, probably most of our listeners who are hearing this have their own experience around being bullied. Those who are raising the next generation of young people need to have a game plan to know how to deal with the subject.
I’m glad that Paul Coughlin is joining us on FamilyLife Today. I really am, Paul. Thanks for joining us. I’m looking forward to some solid answers because this was a tough issue for Barbara and me when we raised our six. Almost all of them were bullied at one point or another.
Paul: Yes, that’s right. You know, it’s interesting listening to both of your stories. You remember the name of the bully.
Dennis: Oh, yes.
Paul: It’s almost indelible when you have been the target of ongoing cruelty. We remember their name. Sometimes we remember their middle name. We remember the situation very, very clearly because of the fear, the anxiety, and, frankly, sometimes the dread that takes place with bullying.
A lot of us think that bullying has to do with miscommunication, misunderstanding, and anger management. We tend to write it off as those things. It’s not those things. It wasn’t that case in your life and it wasn’t the case for you in that bathroom, right?
Paul: That bully didn’t need that money; he just did it because he could. He got his kicks from doing that. It was just an issue that there are just certain people in this world who enjoy inflicting pain on other people.
You’re absolutely right – we have to have a game plan with such people. Otherwise they’re going to take us by surprise and ruin the lives of those around them.
Dennis: We’re also joined by your wife Sandy, who is going to keep you honest here in the studio, Paul.
Sandy, welcome to the broadcast.
Sandy: Thanks for having us here today.
Dennis: Paul, you’re the leader of a ministry called The Protectors.
Paul: That’s right.
Dennis: You’re a father of three; you’re a soccer coach, right?
Paul: That’s right.
Dennis: Explain to our listeners, really, what The Protectors is all about, because I really like this concept.
Paul: We provide both a faith-based and a values-based solution to adolescent bullying. It’s unique because we work in private Christian schools; we work in private schools; and we work in public schools. Now the presentation and the curriculum is not the same, so we have the faith-based component and the values-based component. It’s a two-part program.
I come in and provide a live presentation and I provide great challenges to the characters in what we call “The Theater of Bullying.” Four main characters – Authority, Bully, the Target, and Bystanders. So we explain to all four characters in “The Theater of Bullying” that they play a role. There really is no such thing as an innocent bystander, because by merely being present while another person is being tormented in one way or another, the bystander almost always by their mere presence encourages the bully to keep going.
So what we do is to help all four characters in “The Theater of Bullying” change their role. Like the poor, bullying will be with us always. Our goal is to diminish it. We can substantially diminish it. What’s exciting for The Protectors is the faith-based component. We believe that if you look at history – for most of history – it has been people of faith who have defended human dignity.
That’s what we’re talking about here, really – the defense of human dignity, and bringing His love and His mercy and especially His justice into this “Theater of Bullying.” Many of these targets are incapable of self-rescue.
Bob: Were you a target growing up?
Paul: I was a target mostly in the home. I had a sibling and a parent who – it wasn’t just being picked on every once in a while; it was an ongoing campaign of cruelty. That does something to a person. So I know what it’s like to not want to go on for another day. I know what it’s like to be a target and to feel worthless.
Bob: Yes, it’s one thing for Dennis to have a couple of older boys sit on him and want to feed him a sparrow.
Paul: That’s life.
Bob: But when your family is targeting you, where do you turn? You’ve got nowhere to go.
Paul: You’ve got nowhere to go – at least that’s how you feel when you’re young. I guess I just had a sense that this was temporary, you know? But you do fatigue. You fatigue out. Martin Luther King in regard to segregation said there’s the “fatigue of despair.” There comes a point where you really do begin to fall apart. You begin to lose your strength, your courage. You just accept this awful behavior that takes place.
That’s the case for many targets. Again, we were talking about Dennis earlier – every one of us is going to experience bullying at some time in our life. Statistically, every once in a while doesn’t really sear a person’s psychological flesh. It doesn’t really damage them necessarily. It’s ongoing campaigns of cruelty that, from a psychological perspective, really hurts a person.
There was a study out of Australia. They followed targets of serial bullying into adult life from as young as third grade. They found that seven out of ten had difficulty keeping adult relationships; difficulty with resentment; difficulty with anger management; and with trusting other people.
Sometimes people of faith will say, well, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” That’s actually not found in the Bible. That’s Friedrich Nietzsche, who died insane in a ditch, I think, in Austria.
So it really does ruin the lives of many people and it really should be people of faith who should be on the front lines defending the dignity of other people. Number one group of kids picked on in any school? Physically and mentally challenged kids.
Dennis: You know, Paul, I asked my friend, “So what would you say to your son if at ten years of age he was being bullied?”
He actually said to me (and he smiled when he said it), “You know, I grew up and it was kind of like if I didn’t protect myself where I lived, I would have been dead meat.”
Bob: That was my mom’s advice to me, “Stand up for yourself and if a little fist-to-cuffs happens, defend yourself and then maybe go tell the authorities.” Is that the right way to handle bullying?
Paul: Well, thank goodness, 80% of bullying is verbal, not physical. We all as men – particularly as men, I notice – focus on the physical side because boys tend to, at least at a younger age, bully each other physically.
The first lesson in The Protectors curriculum, we go straight into that issue, because this is a very difficult issue for some Christians. What do I do when I am being treated unjustly? Do I turn the other cheek? That’s the first lesson in The Protectors.
We talk about, “What does ‘turn the other cheek’ actually mean?” We’re left in a bit of a vacuum – not a complete vacuum, a little bit - because Jesus never came out and said what that meant. So we kind of think that we are required to take bad behavior on the part of other people. So if someone literally hits us on our face we are to turn our cheek so that they can hit us again. The problem is there’s great difficulty with that because when Jesus was struck on the face by the guard of the High Priest, He did not turn His cheek.
He was struck on the face because apparently He said something that was disrespectful to the High Priest. The guard hit him and basically said, “Is that any way to speak to this man?” Jesus said, and this is a paraphrase, “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done in public. I’ve done nothing in secret. If so, why do you strike me?”
So Jesus, there, did not turn His cheek but gave a verbal defense for mistreatment against Him. I don’t exactly know what “turn the other cheek” meant, but if we mean that we are to literally turn our cheek when we are hit, then Jesus broke His own rules and was a hypocrite. And He’s not a hypocrite.
I’m going to go with C.S. Lewis on this one, who basically said that when Jesus was talking about turning the other cheek, He was talking about not returning an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth.” We are not supposed to get into revenge. I am not an expert in Middle East affairs, but I know this for sure: It isn’t working.
Paul: When you have a philosophy, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” it just escalates violence and difficulty and pain and misery. Also, revenge is not for the believer. It ruins your life. Revenge is kind of like sitting across the table from your enemy and you drinking poison while expecting them to die!
Paul: Jesus doesn’t want that for His followers, but here’s the big point. Defending your own value and defending the value of other people is not revenge. So as long as you know what your motives are – if I were to stand up to a bully, and my motives were to defend myself, I believe that Christians have the freedom to do so. But if I’m going after them for revenge, I’m not supposed to. We’re not supposed to go into that.
Keep in mind, too, that particularly in 1st and 2nd Peter, there is talk about Christians laying down their rights. But what he’s talking about there is in regard to the faith. People are being persecuted in regard to their faith. Most of our children in school, and I hope our listeners hear me here – most of our children in school are not being persecuted for their faith. So for us to expect them to go in and accept that bad behavior, I believe, at times that fits the definition of child abuse.
It is clearly unfair to expect our kids to undergo that misery. Studies show that later on – their lives are miserable then – and their lives tend to be broken as adults. We don’t want that for our kids.
Dennis: I’m going to illustrate that with one of our daughters, but before I tell that story, I want to ask you, Sandy – we don’t think of girls being bullied. We typically think it’s more of a guy thing, but girls really are bullied as well, aren’t they?
Sandy: They are, and for girls, I would say it’s more verbal as Paul said earlier.
Bob: It’s the whole “mean girls” phenomenon, where one group will pick on and assault – I remember being in the hallway in high school. I was talking to a friend of mine, a classmate, and as we were standing there talking, a group of her girlfriends walked by and they said, loud enough so that she could hear, something catty about her. They didn’t say it to her, but they made sure that the message was there.
I remember kind of looking and seeing who they were and then looking back to her to see if a fight was going to break out in the hall. It didn’t but that’s an example of that kind of mean girl behavior that is that mean girl, bullying behavior.
Dennis: Going back to what you said, Sandy, about words being used – that’s what happened with my daughter. When she was in mid-adolescence she was a little slow in developing. It wasn’t a girl who made fun of her body, it was a guy. She came home and - to your point, Paul, about Christians really needing to uphold the dignity – I felt like, as a father, as I heard the story that I needed to protect my daughter’s dignity and her innocence. She was being taken advantage of, and I had the choice at that point as a parent to either be an authority who steps in, or a bystander who just lets it happen.
I think for many parents the easiest thing to do on a lot of these deals is nothing. I was tempted to do that. But instead, I got on the phone. I called the boy. His father answered the phone. His father said, “What do you want to talk to my son about?”
I told him the name of my daughter and said, “I’m her father. Your son said some things about her body that I think were inappropriate.” The next thing I know, the phone is being handed to the young man. I just told him that my daughter was a beautiful woman and it was really inappropriate for him to say those kinds of things to her and I really would appreciate it if he wouldn’t do that anymore.
Paul: Well Dennis, I have got to tell you that we met a number of years ago, and it’s not surprising to me that you would do that. You seem to be that kind of person.
Let me say, I’m so glad that worked out well. In most cases, most of the time (sadly), contacting the parents of the other kid often doesn’t work. I think in certain parts of the country it tends to be a little better than others.
Many parents have simply abdicated their responsibilities as parents and their children have run wild in hurting, harming, other people. Then we send these kids off to school and we expect the teachers to possess this magic wand. Whether it’s private school or public school, it almost doesn’t matter.
We’re not what we used to be as a nation. I think we’re not what we used to be as parents. I think there was a time you could rely on other parents more. It’s just not quite there like it used to be.
Through The Protectors we usually don’t recommend contacting the parents, but I love to hear the stories when it does take place. That shows a real parent.
Bob: So if Dennis’ daughter came home and said, “Daddy, here’s what happened,” what is your recommendation at that point?
Paul: Well you want to document it. The number one thing is to document.
We should probably start with a definition of bullying because a lot of us think it’s about anger management, miscommunication, misunderstanding. It’s really “the superior use of power with the intention to harm another person over a period of time.” It is an ongoing campaign of cruelty. It is highly predatory. Bullies are highly selective of who they attack, when, and how.
There was a study that asked schools to identify a bully, a target, and bystanders. They mixed them up so that they would take a bully from one school way from the north and put them in with a target from the west – never met them before. Within two hours, all five bullies found all five of the kids who had been previous targets. They look for a certain kind of person.
So we need to realize that this is highly orchestrated; they are highly selective. They’re selective of when they attack as well. If our child is the recipient of ongoing bullying, they need to document what happened to them. One of the best ways to do it is to also find out, “Who else saw or heard what took place?” Because bullies will frame what they do in terms of, “I was just joking around,” or “I was just doing this or that.”
It needs to not be a “he said; she said.” It needs to be “this group of people saw this one person committing anti-social behavior.” As a result, you’re going to give authority to the information they need to truly intervene in “The Theater of Bullying” and help the target. Targets – many targets – are incapable of self-rescue.
Bob and I were talking earlier about Frank Peretti and his experience. For those of you who are familiar with Frank Peretti, he went through an awful time. He was physically disabled. He had a tongue that would ooze a kind of black ink. That was not his fault, but that’s how his life was and he was bullied mercilessly. It was only due to intervention on behalf of his PE teacher, who (I think) had the last name “Justice” – God does have a sense of humor if that’s the case. He intervened, and because of that, Peretti was released from what we call “The Theater of Bullying.”
Frankly, if there hadn’t been intervention, we may not have the wonderful work of Frank Peretti and what he represented.
Dennis: Paul, as you’re talking about this, really it’s an interesting issue emotionally. I’m reflecting back on all the different people in my life who have bullied me. It’s interesting, everybody can be a target. You don’t have to be small in stature or be young. If somebody gets the upper hand in that power position, they can do what you’re talking about. They can bring harm, either emotionally using words or physically using bodily harm.
Paul: And you hit a great word. You didn’t say “hurt,” you said “harm.” You’re absolutely right. You know, we’re all going to be hurt in this life. That’s life and in fact, being hurt from time to time in life actually can make you a little stronger. We’re talking about harm here - an ongoing campaign of cruelty.
As a result, it psychologically damages people. I think it spiritually damages them. After all, they wonder, “Where is this God that I’ve heard about? Where is this God of mercy and justice and compassion?”
My answer to that is that many times God’s will is done through His people. It needs to be His people that intervene and that provide that love and that mercy and that compassion and that justice. Unfortunately, what stops us from getting there sometimes is a lack of courage.
Dennis: I think you’re exactly right; in fact, as I reflect back on those situations where I’ve been the target, it has been the very thing you’re talking about where people who could have been bystanders instead inserted their lives, came alongside, and helped me as a young man or as an older man to step out of a harmful situation.
I just appreciate your work, and I want to talk some more about this, especially around the need for courage because that’s what I think people need to be imbued with. It’s almost like they need a shot to give them courage to be able to handle these situations instead of backing away and backing off and being that bystander.
Bob: And I think they need wisdom as well. They need some help and a strategy and someone to help them think through so that they can know in advance what they’re going to do if a particular circumstance occurs. Paul, you’ve helped us do that.
The book that you’ve written, called Raising Bully-proof Kids, we’ve got in our FamilyLife Resource Center. If our listeners are interested, they can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on how to get a copy of Paul’s book Raising Bully-proof Kids. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY for more information about how to get a copy of Paul’s book.
Speaking of the subject of courage and giving people a shot of courage, Dennis, you’ve tried to do that for men in the book that you’ve just written called Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood. It’s a book that we’re hearing back about from a lot of fathers who are reading through this book with their sons to help cast a vision for what godly manhood should look like in the heart and life of a younger man – a junior high or a high school student.
Then your wife, Barbara, has put together a devotional for families called Growing Together in Courage that brings stories of courageous, heroic people who stood up in the midst of difficult circumstances. This book is designed to be read as a story book or as a devotional book for families. The stories are very compelling.
Again, all of these resources can be found online at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 1-800-FLTODAY; 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word “today.” When you get in touch with us, we’ll let you know how you can get any of these books sent to you.
Now, we have been encouraged this month as we’ve heard from a lot of listeners who’ve been listening for a while, but have just gotten in touch with us for the very first time to say, “We’re out here; we’re listening; we like what’s going on. In fact, we would be willing to help support the ministry with a donation.”
Some of you have called; some of you have gone online. Our goal has been to hear from many listeners who are contacting us for the first time. We’re hoping to hear from 2,000 of you and we’ve had a thermometer keeping tabs of that this month. I haven’t looked at that lately to know where the number is, but last time I looked we still had a little way to go.
We’re hoping that if you’ve not gotten in touch with us this month and you’re a regular FamilyLife Today listener and have never made a donation to help support the ministry – would you consider doing that this month and being one of that group of 2,000? If you do that and then you check back tomorrow, you’ll see that you bumped the thermometer up a little bit.
Of course, we just have a few days left in August, so if you can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com or call 1-800-FLTODAY and make a donation, we would appreciate your support very much. In fact, this month, when you make a donation to help support FamilyLife Today, we want you to request audio CDs that feature some of the messages from our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway. Dennis and I recently spoke at one of these getaways and we’ve taken six of the messages from the weekend and put them in a CD sampler.
You can request the CDs when you make a donation this month. Just type the word “SAMPLER” in the key code box on the online donation form or mention that you’d like the CDs when you make a donation over the phone.
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Again, we appreciate your support of the ministry. We’re glad to hear from you. Thanks for helping to support FamilyLife Today.
Now tomorrow we’re going to talk more about bullying. Paul Coughlin’s going to be back with us and we’re going to talk more about how we should train our children to respond in school when someone else is being bullied. That’s tomorrow. I hope you can be back with us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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