Yesterday at a Washington D.C. middle school, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hosted a screening of the Cartoon Network’s new film, “Stop Bullying: Speak Out.” As its name suggests, the movie aims to teach kids to speak out when they witness bullying — and to not bully other children themselves. One of its many prescriptions: Don’t call classmates words like “stupid,” “fat” and “jerk.”
Sebelius must have dozed off during the film, though, because, after the screening ended, in a panel discussion moderated by CNN’s Don Lemon, she gave advice that directly contradicted the movie:
“What do you think is the best advice for people who are going into watching this film and anyone who is watching?” asked Lemon.
As part of her answer, Sebelius said: “I think, very important, is for kids to understand how powerful you really are. You might feel like you’re not big enough, not strong enough, not–don’t have enough tools. But just saying, ‘Stop it! You know, you’re being a jerk!’–walk away, get away from this person can make a huge amount of difference.”
“And you can really rescue somebody,” Sebelius said. “You can be a real hero.”
Which is it? Is “jerk” a taboo word or the right word to use to speak out against … jerks? As they say, “Live by political correctness, die by political correctness.” As we teach kids to stand up against bullies, are we actually depriving them of the skills and tools they need to stand up against bullies? It’s a serious question.
Sebelius contradicted herself on another point. She said the government plays an important role in combating bullying in schools — presumably by drawing awareness to the issue. But then she hit the nail on the head when she said parents should step in when a child is bullied. “As a parent you should be empowered to really act on behalf of your child and other children,” she said.
As with so many well-intentioned initiatives, anti-bullying programs treat the symptom rather than the disease. Kids often act out when their own home lives are less than ideal. While playground fights will be as perennial as the playground itself, the best way to ensure harmony in public — including at school and among children — is to work for harmony in private. That means to seek to support stable families. While I’d rather the federal government not waste tax dollars on any of these types of initiatives, if we’re going to have ’em, why not a “Save the Families” or “Stop Divorce: Speak Out” initiative?