From The Chuck Norris School of Parenting comes the advice, “If you’re bullied, just hit him back!” It’s the heroic scene in a thousand stories: the plucky little kid bloodies the nose of the cowardly big bully who never troubles him again. Who can argue with Winston Churchill or the Karate Kid? Well, actually, I’d like to argue with them… but please don’t hit me.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that kids who fight back don’t get bullied again. The trouble with anecdotes is ‘confirmation bias’: you hear of the successes not the failures. And it only works when someone has enough size and confidence to fight back. I would argue, if they can match the bully then that’s not bullying, that’s just a fight. In real bullying the victim is outnumbered or smaller, lacks confidence and is unlikely to have the support of his peers. For those kids, telling them that they should fight back is going to be beyond their ability and just add to their sense of shame. A boy I know who was told to fight back by his father – which just wasn’t an option for him – he said it just made him feel bullied by his Dad as well.
In stories, good guys always win fights. Reality is different. There is no justice in fighting. The best fighter wins fights, and bullies usually have the edge. There are plenty of stories where fighting back leads to them getting injured more and also stories where retaliation goes wrong and the intended victim ends up inflicting serious harm and getting in real trouble. And Australian psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg cites research that shows kids who retaliate get victimised more in the long run. Revenge escalates.
A quick scan of anti-bullying web sites and experts working with bullied kids shows a solid consensus in opposition to fighting back. What these experts and sites – including our website – do offer is a range of strategies to eliminate bullying culture in schools, to give resilience and skills to kids to deflect bullying. They have proven effectiveness, though none of them are magic bullets. And they certainly don’t have the dramatic appeal of “… and so I punched him in the mouth and he never bothered me again!”