It should be a comfort to Republicans that years of digging by reporters has so far turned up only this scandal from Mitt Romney's past: he bullied fellow students in high school. I can't say what most people imagined life at an all-boys prep school was like in the early 1960s, but nothing in this recent Washington Post story really surprised me. I certainly agree that the incidents and Romney's reaction don't reflect well on him. If he did in fact hold down some young man and shear off his hair because it looked too floppy, then it seems like something he should remember. If he didn't remember it, then there were probably far too many of these incidents. His apology, suggesting if anyone was hurt, then he was sorry, also seems like a cop-out.
But what to do about bullying? In his column on Saturday, the New York Times' Charles Blow cites a CNN poll in which 77 percent of Americans say that bullying is a "serious problem" and adults should try and stop it whenever possible. Only 19 percent of those polled say learning how to deal with bullies is part of growing up and adults should let kids handle it. As others have pointed out, it's not entirely clear what bullying means anymore. Is it name-calling? Persistent name-calling? Does it have to be physical intimidation? At a parent meeting recently I overheard a mother explain how another boy on the school bus said her first-grade son smelled and the school's administration and two teachers and both sets of parents became involved. Because it may have been construed as bullying.
I was most certainly bullied growing up. In elementary school, I had a group of popular girls who liked to mock me mercilessly for the clothes I wore. One even slammed my finger in a door. In 7th grade there was a girl who regularly threatened to beat me up after school. But I still count myself as closer to the 19 percent view. Having my parents interfere in such things never seemed to me to be very helpful at the time. And now as a parent it seems like an even worse idea. I would have guessed that people my age and older would have seen enough sitcoms in which other kids were encouraged to stand up for themselves or for their siblings (generally without getting adults involved) that the message would have seeped in by now. Peter Brady has to defend his sister from people teasing her about her lisp. Their dad even teaches him how to fight.
I'm not sure what has changed. If we live in a world now in which the nerds and the geeks are more likely to be in charge -- in which the people who complete AP courses and got into Harvard with high SAT scores are more likely than those who were the best athletes or the inheritors of wealth to be running business or government -- then maybe our policymakers are more likely to have been bullied. And maybe they have turned around and decided that their children should not endure the same kind of treatments.
Understandable perhaps. But helicopter parenting worries me more than bullying -- in all but the most serious cases. Which brings me to the now infamous Time magazine cover story last week about "attachment parenting." The mother on the cover, breastfeeding an almost-four-year-old boy, has caused plenty of comment and even a good Saturday Night Live sketch. Inside, there is a quiz on attachment parenting (full disclosure, I failed), which asks questions like whether you put your child on a schedule. And you actually lose points for doing so. This approach to parenting, whether because it's considered more natural or because it will be more fulfilling for the parent or more emotionally rewarding for the child, is a disaster for the rest of the world. We let three year olds believe that they can be on their own schedule. We interfere on behalf of elementary school kids when a fellow student calls them smelly. And then we get college students who can't get off the phone with their parents.
I don't think that growing up has to be merely an occasion for mindless rebellion. But a parent's job must be preparing kids for independent, mature, adult lives, and at least judging by the polls, Americans seem less and less inclined in that direction.