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Israel "Izzy" Kalman

Turning Bullying on Its Head


If cruel behavior among students is on the rise, it may be because too many kids see themselves as victims and not enough are learning to respect their antagonistic peers. At least that's the message advocated by Bullies to Buddies, a company founded by school psychologist Israel "Izzy" Kalman that is helping to change kids' behavior. A nationally renowned speaker who has worked as a school psychologist and psychotherapist since 1978-14 years in Staten Island's public schools in New York City-Kalman has led more than 600 seminars throughout the country for mental health professionals and educators. Free manuals on the group's Web site ( also offer schools in-depth information on Kalman's program. He took some time to speak to News Editor Zach Miners about the problem of bullying and how he thinks schools can stop it.

DA: What's the bigger problem-bullying, or the anti-bullying policies schools adopt to combat it?

Kalman: That's a very perceptive question. Of course they're both problems, but the anti-bullying policies make it worse. And there's a very simple reason: Let's say you and I are kids in school and you bother me-you call me bad names, you push me-I tell the teacher, and you get sent to the principal's office because you bullied me and you get punished. Is that going to make you like me?

DA: Then what do you recommend?

Kalman: You're going to hate me! You're going to want to beat me up after school. The school has just created a worse incident. Plus, these policies are actually rewarding kids for acting like victims. And most of the kids that we call bullies present themselves as a victim: "I'm not a bully-what are you talking about? He started with me!" We don't realize that the real problem is victim behavior, but we call it "bullying."

DA: Many kids feel like they always have to be tough or brave. How do you teach them not to be victims and not make them feel like "sissies"?


Kalman: The biggest trap is when people think they have to stand up for themselves: "You can't talk to me like that!" But that's really a trap. They do it because they're getting upset, and then it escalates. So by thinking that you have to stand up for yourself, you're actually creating the problem. So through role-playing I show kids that by not getting upset, you actually win-you make the kids stop picking on you. If you show people respect, they will like you and protect you. But if you get angry-"I'm going to tell the teacher on you! You can't do that to me!"-the bully is going to hate you and will have no respect for you because you can't handle him on your own.

Of course, there are situations where somebody will say, "Oh, you're a wimp, you're a wuss. How come you're not standing up to me?" And there are different ways of handling it. Let's say you're bigger and stronger than me. I'd have to be nuts to stand up to you-you'd beat the crap out of me. So why don't you tell me, "Go ahead and stand up for yourself. I'll beat the crap out of you!"

DA: "Stand up! I'll beat the crap out of you!"

Kalman: "I'm warning you, if I hit you, I'm going to the hospital!"

DA: [Laughs] Okay.

Kalman: Of course you can beat me up. I'd have to be insane to take you on. The so-called bullies-I hate the word-but the so-called bullies, they're not looking for blood. They want respect. Everybody wants respect. So if you can show the so-called bullies respect, you let them know, "Of course you can beat me up," then they don't have to prove it to you. And if you show them respect, they'll want to protect you. The same people that are your bullies will be your buddies if you know how to treat them.

DA: So it's about showing them that what they're trying to do is not really worth it.

Kalman: Yes. You're not going to succeed in getting me upset. But I'm also not going to get you in trouble. The best legal way to get somebody to despise you is to tell the authorities. "If you bother me, I'll tell on you." Everybody knows the Golden Rule is the best way to live and everybody should live by the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule means that we're supposed to treat people the way we want them to treat us.

DA: You're talking about the Golden Rule of Jesus?

Kalman: Yes. And Jesus wasn't the only one who taught the Golden Rule. Very few people understood it the way he did. And very few people preach it the way he did. But it's nothing new. We would all get along with each other wonderfully if we all lived by the Golden Rule.

DA: What is bullying really about?

Kalman: It's about power. Everybody wants power. It's not abnormal. Today we think that wanting power is abnormal, that it makes you "evil." All living creatures want power; it's the nature of life. And there are all kinds of ways that we get power. In my book Bullies to Buddies, I talk about two ways of having power. One way is the bully way. The other way is the buddy way. They both give you power, but one way is better. One way of having power is by being the bully, meaning that I'm going to put you down, I'm going to fight you, scare you, intimidate you. So if I can scare you, or if I can beat you up, I have defeated you. But also I am in danger, because when I'm turning my back you might stick a knife in me or want to shoot me up. So yes, I do have power, but it also puts me in danger. The other way of having power is getting you to be my friend, because if I get you on my side, your power becomes my power and I don't have to be afraid of you. So the better way of having power is by being buddies, which is what most people do. Most people in the world don't go around fighting each other.

DA: And kids can respond in all different ways to that display of power when they're bullied, right?

Kalman: It's only bullying if I act like a victim. If I'm not being victimized you're not bullying me. You can say the same thing to one person and they'll laugh about it, and you can say the same thing to somebody else and they'll get upset. So it's really the reaction, the way the other person takes it, that determines if it's bullying or if it's just fooling around or friendly behavior. Like with insults, sometimes you'll see kids having insult contests: "Your momma this, your momma that," and they're both laughing. But if you insult my mother and I get upset about it, then I'm a victim, I'm a loser, and you have a great time putting me down. Then it becomes bullying.

DA: How about school security issues? What are the linkages between bullying and preventing crises like shootings?

Kalman: We think that the problem there is bullies. And the reason we have this anti-bullying movement is because of Columbine and the other school shootings. "We're going to get rid of bullies." But were any of these shootings committed by somebody who sounds like a bully? They're all committed by people who feel like victims. The most dangerous people in the world both to themselves and others are not bullies, but victims. Bullies aren't looking to kill. Bullies want control, power, dominance. They enjoy annoying people.

But they're not looking to kill. Bullies want living victims. The people who kill are victims. When a person feels like a victim. he's full of anger, hatred, revenge. They can do the most terrible things, and they feel justified because they're a victim. Your girlfriend rejects you, so you kill her; kids at school pick on you, so you shoot up the school. When people feel like victims, they feel justified doing the worst things.

DA: And so it's through your program, teaching kids not to be victims, that school massacres could be prevented?

Kalman: Yes, because when you know how not to be bullied, you become happier, and you don't have anybody to get revenge against.

DA: Describe the work that you do with schools.

Kalman: When I work with schools there are two general things that I do. One is I teach the kids how to deal with it on their own, so they don't have to get anybody in trouble. And the other thing is I teach the staff what to do, because the typical things the staff does make it worse. "We have to play judge, we have to punish bullies." That only makes it worse. So I do role playing with the staff that shows them how the typical interventions of doing investigations and punishing only makes it worse.

And the same thing is true with principals. Principals were so happy about anti-bullying laws. "Finally we're going to be able to do something about bullying." But these laws don't make the bullying stop. All the laws do is make the schools responsible for stopping the bullying. So now the principals have to be judges, and the parents come in, and instead of dealing with education they become courts of law trying to solve endless ridiculous problems between kids and are being driven nuts by this.

DA: It sounds like you are teaching teachers to be more like child psychologists and less like punishers.

Kalman: Right. And it's easy to do. Teachers can spend 50 percent of their time trying to stop this endless bickering between kids, and they don't realize they're making it happen. And when teachers learn how to do this, they're so relieved. They can go back to teaching instead of being involved with all this endless nonsense.

DA: What about cyber bullying? A law was recently passed in Missouri that made it a criminal offense. Do you see more states enacting such laws?

Kalman: Yes. I believe it's happening and I think states all over the country are now dealing with the issue of cyber bullying. It's going to be really great for the police departments, because now you're going to have an awful lot of policemen just sitting in front of computers. We're going to have to raise taxes to pay for a lot more policemen. And cyber bullying is becoming so common that when it becomes a law you will have armies of policemen doing nothing but dealing with that and only that.

DA: I imagine it's so hard to detect bullying when it's online-not to mention establishing what is bullying but then identifying the actual person who posted whatever it was, and not violating freedom of speech rights.

Kalman: That's right. It brings up all kinds of problems. Lots of manpower is put into this instead of dealing with people actually injuring each other. But cyber bullying will always be a little bit of an issue. Sometimes things that are done over the Internet can have real deleterious effects on people. But what happens usually with cyber bullying is not really different from face-to-face bullying. If kids know how to deal with it by themselves, then it's not a big deal.

There's a saying, "If you're going to play with fire, you may get burned." Now the nice thing about the Internet is that it's the most incredible means of communication in the history of world. But just like it makes communication easy, it also makes it easy to spread nasty stuff about people, because when you get on the Internet you have to realize that people can use it against you. Don't get upset about it; just handle it without getting upset.

DA: What other advice might you give to K12 administrators?

Kalman: It's very important for schools to know what they can do and what they can't do. There are certain behaviors-damage to property, physical injury-that are crimes, and kids who do these things should be punished. But emotional things can't be crimes because it's completely subjective. If you call me an idiot and I get upset, you didn't make me upset-I made myself upset. It's in my power to decide to be upset or not, so that can't be a crime. Every time I feel upset you get punished? The government-and I include school government-cannot make it its job to force everybody to like each other and be nice to each other. It's impossible to do that. The school's job is to educate. So if schools want kids to have better social skills and get along better, they can give lessons. But it's not the school's job to punish the kids if they don't follow the advice.

Somebody once gave me a letter written by a school principal to the student body. The principal explained how important it is to live by the Golden Rule, and the closing paragraph said, "If you're not going to practice the Golden Rule in school, we're going to have no choice but to punish you. We're taking the Golden Rule and making it the Golden Law." You have to be nice to people or you're going to be punished-that's a violation of the Golden Rule!