Pink Shirt Day (being marked on February 22, 2017) is an event started 10 years ago by two high school students in rural Nova Scotia who rallied their schoolmates to wear pink shirts in support of another student who was threatened when he wore a pink shirt on the first day of school. It has grown into an international movement to combat bullying. Here in New Brunswick, that’s accomplished by focusing on creating strong communities in which our children feel supported and empowered. Pickle Planet Moncton is happy to have Pink Shirt Day NB Chair, Andrew J. LeBlanc, share his thoughts.
The Pink Shirty Day NB campaign is about participating in positive actions with positive results. Will wearing a pink shirt stop bullying? No, it’s not meant to. It’s simply a symbol and a reminder that our positive actions can make a positive change in someone else’s life. The day is a call to action to make your school and your community a better place.
Anti-bullying campaigns exist throughout the year and across the country. Many of these campaigns teach us to stand up against bullies or to “stomp them out.” However, in New Brunswick, this isn’t the messaging we use for Pink Shirt Day. Our message isn’t about being anti-anything. Our campaign is about promoting positive values and actions, supporting those who have been on the receiving end of hurtful behaviour, and changing the way we treat each other.
Pink Shirty Day NB is about inspiring our community to participate in positive actions just like Travis Price and David Shepherd did in 2007. Their actions made another student feel supported and valued. These are the results we want to replicate. It is not about standing up against another person but rather about showing support for those who need it, therefore building a sense of belonging and resilience in others. To stand against ‘bullies’ (or fellow students or community members) serves to alienate others who may also be desperately in need of support.
The word bullying itself has been so overused and misused that it seems to have lost all meaning. Far too many incidents of hurtful behaviour are labelled as bullying and subsequently, children and youth become labelled as bullies. And therein lies the problem. Traditional anti-bullying campaigns rely on labels; “you’re a bully, you’re a victim.” This is harmful to the cause but more importantly to the children and youth themselves.
In many cases someone labeled as a bully is struggling with issues like mental health, lack of boundaries and expectations, perhaps abuse, and often is in need a some sort of support network themselves. Labeling someone as a bully almost serves to dehumanize them. It reinforces a negative view of themselves and ultimately can propel them on a course to incite more actions of hurtful behaviour rather than reduce them. Labeling someone as a victim also has adverse effects. To stop true bullying, we must identify the root cause and address that.
Sometimes kids just make poor decisions and are mean to each other. They are in a variety of developmental stages and are learning boundaries and social skills. Here, we often apply the ‘kids will be kids’ label and this is another example of how we must correct our language as it influences our attitude. Often times the ‘kids will be kids’ view is seen as a justification for the behaviour and often that is the end of it. There is no justification for hurtful behaviour and we as adults who are responsible to provide guidance, boundaries, and expectations must help children and youth understand what is acceptable and what isn’t. We cannot solve the problems for our kids, but rather provide support to them as they learn how to do it themselves.
There is something to be said for the role parents can play with regard to setting an example of kindness for our kids. This is crucial. Even if you don’t have kids, we as responsible community members have a role to play in setting a positive example for our young people. Asset number three in the 40 Developmental Assets is “other adult relationships,” stating that a young person receives support from three or more non-parent adults. This is vital as we know there are youth who do not have strong parental support or a positive example. We must all work to make each other feel valued and create a sense of belonging. We are resilient when we feel we belong, and are supported; thus, hurtful behaviour cannot have the impact intended.
It has been suggested that we should teach our kids to fight back. To that point, yes, a bully may be stopped in his tracks when encountering someone tougher; that is until they find someone even tougher to retaliate. Bullying cannot be fixed with violence; it will only be escalated and does not address the root cause of what is happening. There is certainly an argument to be made for standing up for yourself and defending yourself, but the messaging here is crucial so as to not validate the initiation of physical confrontation.
There are a variety of reactions to Pink Shirt Day type campaigns, one such reaction being that it creates a generation of weaklings and kids who can’t deal with the challenges of life. We feel it is a great disservice to our youth to send the message that supporting something like Pink Shirt Day can be viewed as a weakness. There is great strength in feeling a sense of belonging and value. To imply to our kids that supporting this is weakness simply opens the door to allow more hurtful behaviour.
It’s not ‘bullies vs everyone’ or ‘us vs them.’ It’s everyone working together to support each other. People make mistakes, receive consequences for their actions, and some do partake in true bullying. Actual bullying is usually accompanied by many other issues that need to be addressed and often requires a strong support network for the youth and families of both the givers and receivers of bullying.
So no, Pink Shirt Day is not about creating a generation of weaklings. It’s about creating a generation of people who work together to create a community where hurtful behaviour has no impact because the community is rooted in safety, resiliency, respect, and belonging.
Andrew J. LeBlanc chairs Pink Shirt Day NB, is the program director at the Boys & Girl Club of Riverview, serves as a Town Councillor, and is dad to an adorable little girl.