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Posted at 9:40 AM ET, 04/11/2010

On bullying: "What are we really teaching our kids?"

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Malcolm Gauld, an expert on character education and parent, and president of Hyde Schools, a network of public and private schools that emphasizes character-building.

By Malcolm Gauld
In the wake of yet another tragic teen suicide, that of Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts teenager who hanged herself recently in her own home after enduring months of bullying at the hands of schoolmates, I again find myself asking: What are we really teaching our kids?

After 35-plus years of working with kids and families, I sometimes claim that I have immunity from astonishment. That’s not true. The loss of any student is always a major jolt, a sensory overload that leaves an emotional scar lasting forever. However, the loss of a student by his or her own hand is immediately unbearable, taking on a feeling that can only be called sickening.

As educators, we become obsessed with finding some way to ensure that kids like Phoebe Prince do not die in vain. And yet, our schools remain paralyzed, focused on objectives that are not only unsound; they actually fuel many of the problems we profess to want to solve.

Our dynamic reminds me of an old “I Love Lucy” episode. When Ricky comes home to find Lucy on hands and knees looking for a lost earring on the living room floor, he asks, “Did you lose it here in the living room?” Lucy replies, “No, I lost it in the bedroom, but the light is so much better here.”

That scene reminds me of what we’re doing with our kids in our schools. We care more about what they can do than about who they are. And they know it. They know that we’re totally focused on improving their test scores.

On some level they might sense that we’d also like them to develop their character, but they know it’s really only the ”Suggested Reading” section of the syllabus. Parents might blame the schools, but we are fully complicit in the problem, as are the colleges with their steadfast admissions requirements.

Never kid a kid. Regardless of whether they can figure out the quadratic equation we want them to solve, they will never misread our true expectations of them. They simply establish their priorities in accordance with ours.

Just as no amount of tinkering was going to save the horse-and-buggy from the advent of the automobile, the schools of today are not going to get us where we want to go. We need to retool, overhaul, or better yet, flat-out junk what we’ve got and begin anew with fresh priorities:

*Attitude over aptitude
*Effort over ability
*Character over talent

There are schools, such as those within the Hyde Organization, that do strive to honor these priorities one school at a time, knowing that it’s too slow. We look to partner with others — schools, parents, communities — who want to trigger a national discussion that will transform schools into the inspirational beacons they absolutely must be for kids like Phoebe, those in Sout Hadley, and millions of others across the country.

We owe it to them. We owe it to us.

Malcolm Gauld is an expert on character education and parenting. He can be reached by calling 207 837 9441, or writing to, or visiting or the Hyde Schools website.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 11, 2010; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Bullying  | Tags:  Hyde schools, Malcolm Gauld, Pheobe Prince, bullying, parenting  
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Your analogy from the I Love Lucy episode is particularly fitting. I agree that character is an essential part of education, whether a school recognizes this or not. Successful schools are the ones that intentionally make character a part of the curriculum.

Posted by: cmsiv | April 11, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Thank you,Malcolm Gauld, for your beautiful article on such an important issue.

I see the conversation about character as one related also to values, i.e.: as long as a society values material goods and machines more than people,a "cool" personality more than an empathetic one, and a celebrity lifestyle instead of a realistic one,it is shortchanging its future citizens by taking away many chances for a meaningful life and real happiness. It is to be hoped that our schools may be vested in our children's future happiness as well as their potential job skills.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | April 12, 2010 12:10 AM | Report abuse

What is often overlooked is that many children are bullied every day by the adults they have contact with. I have seen parents drag a toddler around a grocery late at night and slap him when he asked when they could go home. Parents shout at teenagers in front of their friends. Curfews make it illegal for a teenager to use public property at certain times, and the local mall has a large sign explaining that teenagers are not allowed in the mall without a parent. (Imagine the fuss if they replaced the age with a racial designation.) A teacher, asked why she had pushed through a group of students int he hallway, replied, "I'm a teacher--they have to get out of my way." Once a co-worker, told looking at someone's pay record was the same as reading their mail, asked, "What's wrong with that? Whoever gets the mail in our house opens it all." I learned not to leave phone messages for newspaper carriers because so many parents didn't bother to deliver the messages.

Maybe those students in Massachusetts were just dishing out the same contempt they receive.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | April 12, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

OK. It's a truism to say public education needs reform. As a starter how about funding it equal to what other countries do? Next, let's start with retooling so-called "Character Education". As widely instituted, it's a joke.

Indeed, there is no evidence that character education is effective. And yet, without evidence of either need or results (aside from anecdotes), character education continues to win funding and accolades.

Not to be deterred, character education programs abound - each trotting out entirely different lists of values and means for implementing them! It is telling that the one thing these competing programs all agree on is the end goal is the child's compliance with authority and conformity with conservative values.

Is that really how we wish to define the core values of our "national character" these days? What about the spirit of inquiry, independence and innovation that defines the true character of a great nation? On the much-lauded "Magic School Bus" TV show, the class slogan is "Take Chances, Make Mistakes. Get Messy!", just the opposite of the stated goals of character education.

Character education sure sounds good... if only it worked. Isn't it time for some real investigative reporting into the claims of character education, instead of all the cheerleading, like this one?

A 2007 report by the US Department of Education found that vast majority of character education programs have failed to prove their effectiveness.

For essays and references, please see
Essays incl. in "Taking Sides: Issues in Educational Practice", 2008 McGraw-Hill/CLS

Wikipedia: Character Education

"The virtue in most request is conformity."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841.

"Teachers and schools tend to mistake good behavior for good character. What they prize is docility, suggestibility; the child who will do what he is told; or even better, the child who will do what is wanted without even having to be told. They value most in children what children least value in themselves. small wonder that their effort to build character is such a failure; they don't know it when they see it."
How Children Fail
John Holt

Posted by: Hifi1 | April 12, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

PARENTS: KEEP YOUR "POPULAR" KIDS' EGOS IN CHECK. Teach them to be GOOD leaders too.


If in doubt, check kids' cellphone texts & pics -- their MySpace & FB pages, too, if not set to private.

Those are big parts of Phoebe's tragedy.

Senior football capt. Sean Mulveyhill dated, then dumped, freshman Phoebe.

Next, Sean partook in "ongoing taunting" vs. her (Irish bitc-, Irish whor-) -- per DA and court docs -- via texting, verbally, and written.

Sean also ENcouraged girlfriend Kayla Narey and Ashley Longe to harass Phoebe.

Why the need to humiliate? And why not use "popular" status to tell friends to STOP?

--Commonwealth of Mass. vs. Ashley Longe
--C. of Mass. vs. Kayla Narey
--C. of Mass. vs. Sharon Chanon Velasquez
--C. of Mass. vs. Flannery Mullins

Not available:
Court docs for Sean Mulveyhill and Austin Renaud (pre-trial conf. is June 29)

Posted by: CitizenOfWorld | April 13, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

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