Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

December 21, 2010

Duct Tape and Bullies – Leaving Their Mark

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 5:30 pm
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My dad assumed it was the frequent mention and image of crime scene bad guys duct taping their victims that connected this tool with bullying for me.  It was my frustration in removing it from a pipe that actually prompted the association.  Duct tape, my dad explained is nothing terribly special, just a very strong cloth based, usually silver-colored tape that is made with a strong adhesive backing and fibers running through it.  When I was younger, I thought it was actually duck tape, and wondered why a silvery substance was named for feathery creatures.  Duct tape gets its name from its original use – sealing the seams in metal ductwork. 

Anyone who has tried to create a temporary plumbing or carpentry fix knows that duct tape is a remarkable asset.  But anyone who has used it knows that the temporary fix leaves rather permanent evidence that duct tape was there.  Whether the remnant of the strong adhesive, or the stringy fibers, the signs are obvious if you look for them.  Hearing way too many news stories of children indelibly marked and some damaged beyond repair by bullying, it shouldn’t be surprising that my efforts removing duct tape brought the similarities quickly to mind. 

Much of my professional work is spent dealing with bullying, consulting to schools, researching student and teacher attitudes and effective interventions in schools, lecturing to parent and professional groups.  I have lost count of how many workshops I’ve given, and I can’t seem to keep up with the need.  After every presentation I give to adults, several participants invariably want to talk about their experiences as a victim, often decades earlier, but still painful, still stuck to their psyche, the duct tape phenomenon.

The research on victims of bullying suggests that, in most cases, it is not a physical or personal characteristic that puts a child at risk.  Children with glasses, freckles, red hair, who are short or tall, seem no more likely to be bullied than others.  What makes a child a prime victim candidate is a quality called reactivity – do they show that they are upset when harassed or hurt.  Reactivity appears highly related to temperament, which is an enduring (not unchangeable, but not easily changed) set of characteristics that are part of a child’s emotional make-up.   The only issues other than reactivity that seem to place a child at risk for bullying are obesity and behavior atypical for your gender (effeminate boys and tom-boyish girls).

It makes logical sense that bullies would pick on children who react.  Bullying is about power – and using power to inflict harm.  You don’t feel very powerful if your harassment, teasing or social exclusion of a peer is met with indifference.  Having a classmate run crying from the room because of your words . . . that’s power. 

In recent workshops with 6th and 7th graders  I heard excuse after excuse about hurtful behavior.  “I accidentally called him a name.  That’s not the same as if I really meant to hurt him”.  “I just told the girls at the lunch table to come sit with me.  I can’t help it if   they all ditched her to come to my table”.  Last I checked, words don’t accidently flow from our mouths, and whether we mean them to hurt or not, the harm is done.  And I think it is only fair and right that social invitations made in public include everyone present, or at least take the feelings of everyone present into account. 

It is not just children who make excuses.  Too many adults tell me “boys will be boys” or “it’s just part of growing up” or express their powerlessness in statements that bullying is inevitable and unresponsive to adult or child intervention.  Excuses and dismissive platitudes suggest that children and adults are unimpressed with, or willing to accept the duct tape character of bullying, the lasting scars it leaves on its victims. 

I am thrilled that my phone and email are barraged with requests for bully prevention programming.  It is terrific that schools, families and communities are waking up to the need to do something.  But one lecture, one assembly, one counseling session will be about as effective in removing bullying as a paper clip is in removing duct tape remains.  If we want our schools and communities to be a place where all children feel safe and valued, we’re going to have to look through our tool boxes, bring out the heavy equipment, and commit to a long term renovation.  I meet with plenty of skepticism about whether it can be done at all . . . from 8th graders, teachers and families.  But I also am privileged to hear students, families and educators share stories of what can and has made a difference.  So I choose to be hopeful and pack my bags regularly for another visit to another school to help start the process of change.

How effective I, or any person or group will be will come down to how we attack complicated, dangerous and growing problems.  Will we take the time to fix things right, even if it takes more effort, leaving the quick fix duct tape in the tool box?  Will we work at fixing bullying the right way, with sufficient attention and effort?  The investment may be great, but the potential dividends are beyond measure.  That is what I work for, children saved from the lasting and painful scars of being a victim.



  1. Rona… Thank you for all your valuable advice. Do you have any suggestions for books on empathy geared for chidren ages 3-8?

    Comment by Riki — January 25, 2011 @ 1:23 pm |Reply

    • I happen to love Helen Lester’s books and her Hurty Feelings about an oversensitive hippo is great. Almost any children’s book that has a relationship in it can promote conversation along empathy lines – using the book to ask questions about how characters feel, how their faces look, etc.

      Crysanthamum is a lovely book about a child teased about their name.

      There are many picture books that contain teasing and bullying, just beware . . . read them first . . . some give terrible advice and make it seem as if it is incredibly easy to solve the complex problem of bullying.

      I would love to hear from other readers if you have picture books you particularly like for teaching empathy or other life lessons.

      Comment by Life's Toolbox — January 28, 2011 @ 9:04 pm |Reply

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