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Should Parents Be Punished if Their Children Are Bullies?

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The email subject was “Playground Behavior,” and I was relieved to see that it went to every second-grade parent—not just me. The scoop is that some kids were purposely leaving two girls out of the game the class was playing during recess. The teacher asked all the parents to have a talk with their children. I went into interrogation mode with my son and asked, “Was this you?”

He swore up and down that it wasn’t and I believed him, but if he had been one of the bullies, I don’t know what I would’ve done. What’s the appropriate consequence for bullying or meanness? Should there be harsher punishments for bullying? Some people think parents should be punished for their child’s behavior and that’s actually happening in some states. But should a mom face a penalty for her child’s misbehavior?

How does it work?

Over the past six years, a few towns have either implemented or proposed ordinances that say parents can face a fine if their child persistently bullies. It’s worth mentioning that the penalties are rarely imposed. They are deterrents rather than punishments. Still, you better believe I’d perk up if I received a letter from my local police department with my child’s name and an incident number.

In North Tonawanda, New York, parents may be fined $250 and jailed up to 15 days if their child bullies someone. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, after someone reports bullying, if investigators decide the person has violated the ordinance, he or she could receive a written warning or be fined anywhere from $10 to $1,000. The amount of the fine is decided in court. In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after a second incident of bullying, parents would have to take parenting classes on bullying. After that, a judge will determine whether there’s enough evidence to fine the parents and issue a court order forcing them to pay $500. If the issue continues beyond the $500 fine, parents are fined $750 for every offense thereafter

Is issuing parents a fine a good idea?

Not necessarily. To suggest that every bully has negligent parents who need a wake-up call is oversimplifying the problem. I bet we all know a mom who’s at her wits’ end trying to figure out how to discipline a child who bullies.

Decades ago, when there was no internet, bullying behavior was learned at home from physically or verbally abused parents or siblings. But now, kids might learn how to bully by watching YouTube or overhearing it while they play a video game. Yes, parents bear some responsibility for what a child absorbs through media, but do they have the same moral culpability as parents who are bullies themselves? No.

You also have to ask if fines for bullying would unfairly punish low-income families. In a single-parent household where mom works two jobs and is struggling to pay the bills, a $250 fine might be the utilities or groceries for the month. Most likely a fine won’t suddenly motivate a parent to become engaged. Instead, it could just make the parent think the school and the courts are overreacting.

But might it be necessary?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And I’d guess that the mother of an eight-year-old boy who died by suicide after being bullied would argue that these are desperate times. When one out of five kids between the ages of 12 and 18 reports being bullied, it’s time to try something different, and punishing parents is definitely different.

Supportive parents reduce their children’s likelihood of being both a perpetrator and victim of bullying. Do you think parents should pay for their child’s offense? Should there be harsher punishments for bullying?

ASK YOUR CHILD...

What’s a bully? Have you seen bullying happen at school or online?

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