Her 2008 documentary, Bullying: A Culture of Silence, addresses a subject that continues to dominate headlines, perplexing parents and politicians alike. Today, the Toronto filmmaker and mother of three provides consultation services to families. We met over coffee to discuss the wisdom of Bullying Awareness Week, what parents need to do better, and why Lady Gaga can’t solve this crisis on her own.
On Monday, the mayor launched Bullying Awareness Week by saying that when you’ve been overweight your whole life, you get made fun of. Is there a distinction between being teased and being bullied?
There can be. Most of us have made a flippant comment at someone else’s expense, but that’s not necessarily bullying, which is an aggressive behaviour intended to humiliate the target. There is certainly a grey area.
How much depends on the person it’s landing on? I don’t mean that we’re blaming the victim, but presumably what rolls off one person’s back is deeply hurtful to someone else.
That’s true, but when you start dealing with a level of torment day in and day out, that’s going to wear on you regardless of how thick your skin is. People may look at one particular incident and think, ‘Oh, that’s no big deal,’ but you have to take into account the build-up.
So the toughen-up mentality can be pretty damaging?
Oh, yes. That incenses me to no end. I’ve heard someone who you just mentioned use that kind of language and it really makes me mad.
Are you referring to Rob Ford?
I’m not going to go there, but let’s just say I’ve heard a certain somebody use that boys-will-be-boys defence, and I think to myself, if it were his child coming home and punching holes in the walls because he feels so excluded and depressed, would he still think that way?
How did you become so passionate about this cause?
About nine years ago, my son experienced bullying at a very devastating level. He was in Grades 5 and 6 at the time. I went as high as Queen’s Park to try to get it resolved, but I didn’t have a lot of luck. I noticed a real void in the system. After our experiences, I was sitting on so much information and research, so I felt the need to share it and to help other families.
When you say you took it all the way to Queen’s Park, I guess that means the more immediate channels weren’t very helpful. Why do so many authority figures stick their heads in the sand?
I think the hope is often that if [education professionals] ignore it long enough, it will go away. Parents are then afraid to be persistent, because they don’t want to be labelled as difficult, but it’s important to remember that you have to be your child’s greatest advocate.
Cyber-bullying is a huge problem that has exploded in recent years. What do you find most shocking?
How normal and acceptable it is for young people to sexually harass and humiliate [each other] online in a public forum like Facebook. Parents need to have their children’s passwords and be friends on Facebook.
It’s true, but when I was young I would have freaked if my mom had asked to read the journal that my friends and I exchanged notes in.
I think the key is that you can’t just come in when your kid is 15 and ask for all of their private codes and passwords. You need to start from the moment they go online and make them understand that it is non-negotiable. Maybe they’re furious, but oh, well, too bad.
So privacy for young people is an antiquated notion?
I’m not saying that a parent needs to be checking up every day, but just that there needs to be an understanding that there will be check-ins. Your job is to protect your children. At one point that was about street-proofing them and making sure they were safe when they left the house, but now it’s more complicated.
What do you think of the notion that the internet has impacted the more recent generation’s perception of time? It’s been suggested that a kid like Amanda Todd was not capable of imagining five years down the road because everything is so immediate.
Honestly, hasn’t that always been part of being a teenager? Everything seems like it is the most important thing, and if something bad happens, it’s as if you will never get over it.
There has been a push to extract something positive from her death.
Yes, and hopefully we will see some changes, but like I said, that will require a dedicated commitment of time and resources. An anti-bullying week is great, but it’s what we do after that that matters.
Does support from celebrities make a difference? Everyone from Lady Gaga to Mike Tyson to Bill Clinton has been coming forward with their own bullying stories.
It can be helpful. Kids definitely need people to look up to, but they also need people to talk to, not celebrities. I’m not pooh-poohing it, but we can’t expect those heavy hitters to solve the problem for us.
Sunnie McFadden-Curtis is giving a talk for teens at the Brentwood Library (36 Brentwood Rd. N.) on Nov. 19, from 4 to 5 p.m.