should there be harsher punishments for bullying

Should Parents Be Punished if 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: “Was this you?”

He swore up and down that it wasn’t and I believed him, but if he’d been the bully, 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 children’s behavior and that’s actually happening in some states. But should a dad face a penalty for his child’s bullying?

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. After someone reports bullying in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 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 continued 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 parent who’s at his or 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, either from parents or siblings who physically or verbally abuse. 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 a parent who is himself a bully? No.

You also have to ask if fines for bullying would unfairly punish low-income families. In a single-parent household where a parent works two jobs and is struggling to pay the bills, a $250 fine might be the utilities or grocery bill 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?

When 1 out of 5 is being bullied, it’s time to try something different, and punishing parents is different.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And I’d guess that the parent 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.

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

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Have you ever seen anyone at your school get bullied? How did it make you feel?”