Giving Doug Ford the Anti-Bullying Treatment

Dear Doug Ford,

As you know, today is Anti-Bullying Day, otherwise known as Pink Shirt Day. I saw your video on Twitter with you in your pink shirt, talking about how we need to stand up against bullies. (I apologize, your speech was so platitudinous that my mind wandered halfway through, both times I tried to listen to it.) Most of the people who joined in the subsequent thread have come to the same conclusion I have: we have diagnosed you, the premier of Ontario, as a bully. To honour Anti-Bullying Day, whose focus this year is “Lift each other up”, I’ve decided to treat this issue as I would a similar situation at school, and look beyond the surface. I’m gonna try to lift you up.

Photo by Peter Biesterfeld via nowtoronto.com.

First, let’s establish why we’ve given you this diagnosis.

What is bullying?

Bullying is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”  School age aside, the power imbalance is obviously there, since you’re the premier. And I think you’d agree – even feel proud – that the behaviour is aggressive. And large numbers of Ontarians would also agree that it’s unwanted. And we know that it’s going to go on for as long as you are in office. Lots of time for significant repetitive and/or permanent damage to your victims.

Are you really a bully?

Let’s look at the behaviours. There’s your tendency toward nepotism – you want to put as many of your pals as possible into positions of power near you. It’s always easier and safer to torment others when you have your gang with you.

The same could be said of your attempts to brand the province as yours, with the gang colours of your signage and your license plates – even though, as we know, that last thing turned out to be kind of embarrassing for you because the license plates can’t be read properly. (Sometimes even bullies, surrounded by their friends, can have plans that backfire.)

Most importantly, Doug, bullies exploit the power imbalance by focusing on differences that can become insecurities. In this case, you’ve chosen social differences. And you are definitely making life less secure for lots of Ontarians. When one looks at the people you’ve chosen to victimize, the phrase “pick on someone your own size” comes to mind. Your cuts, made from the height of your throne of privilege, have negatively affected some of the most already-marginalized people in the province.

And so on and so forth. Even before you became Premier, while you were still a Toronto councillor, you opposed a home for developmentally disabled youth in you ward, saying the home had “ruined the community”, throwing in some racist language while you were at it. Honestly, what disadvantaged population have you NOT persecuted in some way? Even when you’ve backtracked on certain cuts, you’ve left more damage than repair.

This is not even getting into the ways in which you’ve harmed environmental policy and set our province back in terms of the climate emergency. Clearly, you’re not thinking about the future – not that of your children or potential grandchildren or anyone else.

The biggest thing that makes me think you’re a bully, though, is how your political career is not… politic. Now that you’ve achieved the governing of Ontario, you don’t seem to give a crap about the things that politicians ostensibly prioritize. You seem unconcerned with optics, ingratiating yourself to the public, or building a legacy of any kind. You haven’t even put true effort into improving Ontario’s budget situation – your budget is actually worse off than the Liberals’. Those are important things when it comes to reelection, so what are you trying to accomplish here? If you don’t want to improve the lives of Ontarians, and you don’t want to get reelected, what’s left?

Just damage. Just you and your posse, tearing down people and the systems that support them. The sad accomplishments of a seasoned bully.

Lots of people think this is about revenge, possibly for the way your brother Rob was treated while in the Toronto mayoral office. Whatever the reason for your behaviour, there’s widespread agreement out there that it looks petty, small-minded, and spiteful.

Whenever I interact with kids who tend to prey on kids weaker than they are, I try to find out more about them. The tougher the student, the more difficult the personality, the more crucial it is to understand who they are. As all good teachers know, the best way to give your students the care they need – and bullies, like victims, need care – is to be able to see their best sides… or at least find some empathy for them. Most of the time, it’s easy to find that empathy. It comes down to what or who has influenced the bully in question.

Why do people bully others?

Aggressive and mean behaviours in kids usually correlate with lived experiences that damaged their self-esteem. Trauma in the family is often a factor. These kids may have dealt with hostile family splits, addictions, violence, loss, food insecurity, and so on. They have, in many cases, been bullied themselves at some point. It’s widely agreed upon that bullies tend to have deep insecurities themselves, which they mask by picking on others. Oftentimes, they are imitating the actions of someone who hurt them.

I’ve been doing some research on you, Doug, to find some empathy for you. Sadly, when I looked up “good things Doug Ford has done,” the page that came up was full of articles about your cuts to important programs. Even the one called “The Top Ten Reasons – no, 115 – Doug Ford is our best premier ever!” was actually satirical. But I did find some things that allow me to see you as a person. That’s the first step.

Here’s what I came up with, mostly from Wikipedia.

  • You grew up in a four-child household, the third in line, between two brothers. That probably wasn’t easy. There may have been a lot of noogies or wedgies or wrestling or whatever – or it may have been worse. (I was also the third of four kids, but between two sisters. There’s a lot less potential for toxic masculinity between sisters, so I’m sure I had it easier.) You probably had to work hard to be you. And based on what the media saw of you and your brother Rob interacting, you were sometimes each other’s best support, and sometimes at each other’s throats. Totally normal for brothers.
  • Your dad would have had to be a special kind of role model to help his sons grow to be good men. Your parents were together, but that doesn’t tell me much. Doug Ford Sr. co-founded the business you’re now in charge of, and later on also became a politician in the provincial legislature, so I have a feeling he was very busy. Maybe not home a lot. (Which, you say, is what makes a “healthy marriage” for you and your wife.) Was he affectionate? Distant? Violent? No idea. But he was a backbench supporter of Mike Harris, so there’s evidence of a certain “screw you” philosophy.
  • When you were a teenager, you worked at a meatpacking plant, and subsequently became an ethical vegetarian. Honestly, you have all my sympathy there. Working at such a place is trauma in itself, since “meatpacking” generally means slaughterhouse, and few people emerge from such a place un-haunted. And Wikipedia says you still don’t eat red meat; good for you.
  • You finished high school, then attended Humber College for two months before dropping out. Well, there’s a big clue. Whatever your reasons were for dropping out, it now makes sense that you have such a hate on for teachers – they all have at least two post-secondary degrees! That must make your insecurities go haywire. No wonder you have to pay yourself and your staff so much, so that you can feel less inadequate.
  • You also, as a young person, asserted your power beyond your family in spite of your middle-child situation. I’ll bet it felt like quite an achievement when you managed to position yourself at the top of the neighbourhood drug-dealing hierarchy in your affluent childhood neighbourhood of Etobicoke North.
  • You’ve been bullied yourself in the media – especially fat-shaming, which is not cool. When you and Rob did your public weight-loss challenge, I’m sure that took courage. Everybody knows that losing weight is a struggle, and that eating healthfully is much easier said than done. And however anti-climactic the result, you raised a decent sum of money. Way to go.
  • There was that time you said you would donate your city councillor salary back to the community, which showed magnanimous intentions and an awareness of the needs in Toronto. I have to say, though, that it would be easier to get excited about this if there were any evidence that the donation had actually happened.
  • Your family also donated 90K to Humber River Hospital while Rob was receiving treatment there for cancer – personally motivated, but generous nonetheless.
  • You have had to grieve the deaths of both of your parents and your brother – your mom’s death particularly recently. My condolences; that’s really hard. I hope you’ve felt supported and had time to process these losses. (If you want, you can really up your cancer-avoidance game by reading The China Study. Also it couldn’t hurt to use your power to make Ontario less polluted. Just a thought.)
  • There was that time you took a bike ride in downtown Toronto with Jagmeet Singh and were a good sport about it – Singh said you were “very warm and friendly” and a “gentleman.”

So, what does all this really tell me? What can I surmise about the source of your personality and political agenda?

It’s nice to see that you’re a person. Despite all the comparisons people make between you and Donald Trump, I don’t think you’re a sociopath or a narcissist. I appreciate that your Twitter feed is much more professional and mature (and on-topic) than Donald’s. I’ll bet that if you weren’t the premier and I met you on a train abroad somewhere, we could have a very pleasant (superficial) conversation as fellow Canadians.

It seems likely to me that, as is so often the case, a lot of your behaviour is learned. I also think that you are angry, and possibly afraid. You are probably pretty stressed, given your job and especially the numbers of people dead-set against you right now.

The big question I ask my students when they are bullying others is: “Are you a mean kid?” Most of them say no. They really don’t think of themselves as such. When I say, “Do you want to hurt people?”, most of them say no. Then I have to tell them, “If you do mean things, it’s the same as being a mean person. If you don’t want to be a mean person, you have to show it with your actions.”

So, Doug, I ask you the same question. Are you a bad guy? Do you want to hurt people? Do you want that to be the legacy of your time in office? Because if not, you’re going to need to do things differently.

As a teacher, I’ve been struggling with a distinct feeling that you don’t give a crap about children, or about the people who work every day to help them grow up to be good humans. So my last question is, DO you give a crap about the future of Ontario? If you do, you have to show it with your actions. Show us that your pink shirt means something, and that it’s not just a white shirt that went in the wrong laundry pile.

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Coaching Your Kid To Stand Up To Bullies

My son is in Grade 1, and he has this one particular classmate who worried me from the first day. I was told, by a friend of mine whose son was in his kindergarten class, that he was “the cool kid.” It was obviously true. Short but sporty, tough little chin, primary-school mohawk haircut. Clearly comfortable with his peers, even on that first stressful day.

For the purposes of this post, let’s call him “Ringleader.”

From what I can gather, he’s the middle son in his family, and his mom is heavily involved in the School Council. He knows how to be an upstanding citizen. He’s the kind of kid who knows how to cooperate and use good manners, and can deftly and justly organize a group of kids building a snow fort. IF there’s an adult standing there, observing.

If it’s the kids alone, though, apparently his rule becomes dictatorial. He forces other kids into set roles, and reserves the right to fire them capriciously. We have heard Ringleader’s name many times in relation to playground governance, but last week, E told us he hadn’t had fun at recess specifically because Ringleader had fired him from their clubhouse – apparently for “not doing his job” (even though E was sure he’d never been assigned a job).

It’s worth noting that E took the appropriate first step: reporting to adults he trusted.

We said things like, “He can’t just fire you. He doesn’t own that part of the playground. You don’t have to go away just because he says that.” (Sean encouraged E to tell Ringleader it was “wrongful dismissal.”)

We thought it might just blow over, but the next day it continued, even worsened. And I realized that, as much as we teachers discuss and implement anti-bullying strategies at school, I wasn’t at all confident about the best way to coach E on this. It’s easy to say, “Stand up for yourself!”, but unrealistic to expect a shy six-year-old to know how to do that.

When I was a kid, I was homeschooled for basically all of elementary school – and it was my choice. I had enjoyed kindergarten, but what I remember of my brief taste of Grade 1, other than stultifyingly boring Mr. Mugs readers, was being scared of the Grade 2 boys on the playground. One reason I didn’t return to public school until Grade 9 was that my older brother and sister both had troubles at school, especially during the intermediate years, with other students who were horribly, habitually mean to them.

It was the right choice for me. We were – and are – a family of confirmed nerds, but fortunately my high school was a big place with lots of smart kids among whom my nerdiness was not a big deal. Although I’d always been aware, through my various extracurricular activities, that I was weird and shy and lacking in cool-cred, I did know I was lucky never to have been traumatized by hard-core bullying.

Last week, in trying to help my son, I deferred to Sean, who did attend public school, and who is a boy, and who also dealt on many occasions with kids who picked on him. He talked to E about pretending you’re confident, and, apparently even more important, pretending you don’t care what the bully says. When Ringleader says you’re fired, shrug your shoulders and walk off. Find your own fun. Be a free agent. Say to some other kid, “Hey, I’m going to go do such-and-such – you can play too if you want.” (Implied: but I’m fine if you don’t.) THIS is how you take away the power of the social bully. Sean assured our son that when he was a kid, it worked every time.

Good advice, I think, but of course, this is so hard. As E describes it, almost every boy in his class is… employed by Ringleader. It’s hard to walk away when nobody’s left to play with. Not only that, but the second day this happened, some of the kids who’d rallied behind Ringleader to exclude E were ones who have been his closest friends this year. Even though some of them were ones who’d previously been “fired.” (Fickle little jerks.) Such is the power of Ringleader.

And such is the potency of the Group. We talk a lot about uniting against bullying, about mustering the courage to call bullies out. In reality, it is painfully true that kids don’t often stand up to bullies in person – on behalf of themselves or others. It is much easier to fall into rank behind the current ringleader, given the chance, no matter how mean he is. The one time recently when I witnessed one of my Grade 4 students scolding two of his classmates (with great eloquence, I might add) for picking on someone, I was amazed, and literally almost cried.

Last week, I also advised E to ask this boy, “Hey Ringleader, did you know that you’re a bully?” Because there’s always the possibility that he’s in denial. I’m certain he knows that bullying is bad – schools drive home this message ad nauseam – but sometimes kids are weirdly oblivious to the sum of their actions.

When I’m talking to a student accused of picking on someone, I usually ask, “Are you a mean kid?” Almost without exception, they say no. “Then why are you doing mean things?” I say. “Because if you do lots of mean things, that makes you a mean kid.” Strangely, many of them have never bothered to do this math for themselves. Maybe Ringleader just needs to be shown the equation.

In the days following the “firings,” I kept asking E how his recess went. By day 3, he had been “rehired” and given a job with his friend J. He seemed happy enough (after all, his job was making mud balls), but I was seething a bit at the arrogance of this kid. This week, things seem to have simmered down. And one day, E said he’d “wandered around” at recess, rather than be “forced” to play goalie in soccer, which seems like a healthy stroke of independence. (Evidently he’d been forced to play goalie once before and felt he was terrible at it.)

I’m on the lookout for trouble now. I want to know if this crops up again – and frankly, I don’t see why it wouldn’t, unless Ringleader experiences some sort of comeuppance.

I’m well aware that my son, much as I love him, sometimes behaves in ways that could be annoying to other kids. I don’t witness his school interactions, but it could be a factor. I also know that he has developed a tendency to take things personally, and hard. For reasons we are still working to discern, his level of resiliency is not as high as it was when he was a toddler, or even an infant. He is also smallish and ghost-pale, has glasses and a lisp, and is probably smarter than either of his parents. Perfect bully-bait.

This has been a good lesson for me, as both a parent and a teacher. Just hoping my children will be happy and well-liked for their whole lives doesn’t make it so; similarly, talking theoretically about anti-bullying strategies to large groups of kids can only go so far. We’ve got to address it as it happens, and with dogged forthrightness.

This past Wednesday, many schools in our board celebrated Pink Shirt Day, an annual “Stand Together Against Bullying” event. And according to the Interwebs, Friday, February 26th is “International STAND UP to Bullying Day.”

We got the shirts. We’re ready to wear pink, and we’re ready to ask and discuss and research and help our kids – both biological and pedagogical – figure out how to manage bullying situations in their real lives.

I’ll keep you posted.

IMG_3225 pink shirt day

If you’re interested in reading more, here’s what I’ve found helpful so far:

  • A short but useful article from Psychology Today here;
  • “Bully-Proof Your Child” from Parents Magazine here;
  • Resources for teaching children resiliency here.

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