A School Psychologist Objects to a Viral TikTok Video about Bullying

Crumpled paper can’t heal — humans can.

A video of a mom showing her two kids how every cruel remark is like crumpling a sheet of paper that, even when flattened out again, is still ruined, has become a TikTok sensation. The kids are cute, the mom is serious, and the point is stark: once hurt by an insult, you don’t really recover.

Lots of news outlets have picked up on this and praised the message. But one iconoclastic school psychologist and therapist in practice for more than 40 years, Izzy Kalman, has not, and his Facebook post about it provides a fascinating counterbalance.

Kalman is a pioneer of the resilience approach to bullying, developing the “Bullies to Buddies” system (bullies2buddies.com) for teaching both children and adults how to solve relationship problems on their own. His “Anger Control Made Easy” and “Bully-Proofing Made Easy” seminars have been attended by 50,000 mental health professionals and educators.

Kalman’s work is different from most anti-bullying efforts in that it is more psychological than legal. That is, instead of treating bullying as a crime that requires protection, investigation and adjudication by adults, he treats it as an inevitable part of life that children should be taught how to handle on their own. (Of course, if a child is physically hurt, that is a different matter.) Most radically, Kalman teaches kids a technique for disarming bullies by treating them like friends. It sounds saccharine, but actually, it’s a lot more Ghandi than Goody Two-Shoes.

This “How to Stop a Bully” video features Brooks Gibbs, a talented speaker and media expert who trained intensively with Kalman. It provides an excellent summary of Mr. Kalman’s main ideas and techniques.

Below is the viral TikTok video, and below that is Kalman’s Facebook post about it (that he later expanded into a Psychology Today blog post). Share your thoughts over at our Facebook group, “Raising Independent Kids” (click here).

KALMAN’S FACEBOOK COMMENT:

A misguided, well-intentioned anti-bullying message has gone viral.

The “crumpled paper” exercise has been used by adults for many years to try to reduce bullying among kids. A mother made a TikTok video in which she does the crumpled paper exercise with her children to teach them not to insult anyone because like crumpling paper, it causes irreparable, permanent harm. She even shows that a sincere apology is not enough to make amends.

The problem is that the analogy is fundamentally flawed. A page of paper is dead. If it is torn, the tear stays. If it is crumpled, the wrinkles stay.

But people are alive. One of the basic characteristics of living beings is that they constantly heal. Not only that, they tend to get stronger where the injury occurred. If we didn’t heal, we would be hideous to look at, covered with rashes, cuts, bruises, and every other injury we ever experienced, and our emotional condition would constantly erode until we’d need to be institutionalized because we could no longer function.

It is inevitable that we suffer injuries, including injuries to our feelings. But we tend to heal and get stronger. Sometimes we need assistance to heal, both from physical and emotional injuries. And a sincere apology not only has the power to undo harm, it can even lead to an improvement in a relationship. We certainly are not like pieces of paper.

The downside to the crumpled paper message is as follows:

It is intended to teach kids not to insult others. But what will happen when they are on the receiving end? Will they get over the insult more easily? On the contrary. They will be more likely to think that they cannot heal and are scarred forever. They will be more likely to get upset and outraged when anyone insults or criticizes them, and that will unintentionally encourage the critics and insulters to do it to them even more.

It would be much more helpful to teach kids that insults are nothing to get upset about than to teach them that they cause permanent scars. We used to do that, until we replaced the ending of the traditional “sticks and stones” slogan with, “but words can scar me forever.”

And we wonder why bullying continues to be considered an epidemic. — Izzy Kalman