Little Bullies

“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

attribution: Donna DameronI have absolutely no knowledge, training, or experience that would qualify me to write about children. But I am an American, so the fact of my ignorance shouldn’t stop me. Look at our lineup of 2016 presidential candidates.

Long ago, I appropriated a line from a quirky and underrated David Mamet movie, State and Main. When asked if I have children, I always reply, “No, I never saw the point of them.”

And it’s partly true. That whole biological-clock thing never activated for me. I never imagined myself a parent, and never, ever yearned to hold a baby or fill my home with miniature humans. I’m very glad most people feel otherwise, else we’d be a dying planet of self-absorbed baby-boomers with no subsequent generations to act smug towards.

But as I explore kindness, a frequent issue I encounter is bullying. I’ve written a few times about adult bullies, but I can’t ignore the huge problem of children who bully, or are bullied, and the long-term destructive effects of those behaviors. The vast majority of adult bullies were also bullies as children, or else they themselves were bullied or abused. The earlier we address and counter bullying, the better the chances of preventing it or breaking its cycle.

I don’t remember there being a lot of bullying in my childhood—of course, one of the benefits of aging is selective memory. Back when mastodons roamed the earth and the trendy social media platform was Pony Express, there must have been girls who were bullies, but I don’t remember any. Throughout my elementary school years, there were two boys whom I recall being bullies; they picked on smaller boys and strutted around like bantam-weight princes. I don’t think we called them bullies, though perhaps the boys they picked-on did. Neither boy was very bright; I supposed their bad behavior may have been their way of dealing with the fact that intelligence was rewarded at Greenbrae School and they struggled to keep up with their fellow 3rd graders.

21st Century Bullying

Bullying today is scary. It’s practiced and experienced by both boys and girls. It goes beyond taunts on the playground—which is bad enough—to organized hazing through social media and unimagined cruelty. Cyberbullying, especially, isn’t something that occurs and is then forgotten. It resides on social media sites, it gets forwarded, it takes on a life of its own.

Bullying takes many forms. What starts out as playground taunting might escalate into sexual harassment, gang activity, domestic violence, workplace intimidation, or elder abuse. The sooner we make it clear to all that any form of bullying is unacceptable, and the sooner we help bullies learn other behaviors, the sooner we will see declines in these offenses.

Stories are everywhere of the devastating effects of bullying. On her website,, Jacki James recounts the long-term bullying her son Peyton was subjected to, which eventually led to his suicide. We hear other stories of the quiet kids who were bullied for years before they snapped and turned a rifle on their persecutors, bystanders, and then themselves.

After her son’s suicide, Jacki James became an activist for kindness and to counter bullying. She created the website, which seeks to change the ways people interact with one another and to foster kindness on a global level. Ms. James explains that “Children bully others because it gives them a sense of power that they are otherwise missing in their lives. Many times, a bully will be the victim in a different situation, maybe at home or on a team. So to make up for their lack of self-worth, they lash out at others to give themselves power in that situation. It is a way of deflecting how they really feel about themselves onto someone else.”

Bullies, according to Ms. James, need to understand the damage their words can inflict. “They need to understand that they don’t know the demons another person is fighting and just because the person they’ve abused smiles or laughs, that doesn’t mean they’re ok. It just means they’re hiding their true feelings and either holding it all inside or lashing out at another time.” She cautions that no one wants to carry the guilt of saying something cruel and later learning that they were the last person to speak to another who took his or her own life. “That is a guilt that will tear you up, little by little, every day for the rest of your life.”

Kindness is Learned…As is Unkindness

It seems pretty obvious that kindness is something we learn—or don’t learn—as children. And then what we learn—or don’t—accompanies us into adulthood, where we become kind adults, bullies, or sometimes bystanders.

In an extensive study of 10,000 middle-school and high-school students, Harvard researchers found that 80% of kids said they were taught by their parents that personal happiness and high academic achievement were more important than caring for people. Though parents express positive views about kindness, their behaviors often negate them, and “their messages about achievement and happiness are drowning out their messages about concern for others.” Not surprisingly, 80% of kids confirmed that they, also, valued achievement and happiness over concern for others. Nor should it be a surprise, then, if 30% of middle and high-school students report having been bullied, half of all high-school students admit to cheating, and more than half the girls in grades 7-12 report experiencing sexual harassment in school.

How to Raise Kids to Be Kind

That same Harvard study identified five ways to raise children to truly value kindness:

  • Adults need to take responsibility. They need to assure that their own behaviors match the messages they tell their kids. They need to walk their talk.
  • Give kids opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness. Kindness is a learned behavior and will be strengthened with repeated opportunities to extend oneself and feel the satisfaction of helping.
  • Teach the skills to find perspective. The study describes this as “zooming in” and zooming out”—this means learning to recognize kindness opportunities in one’s circle of friends and family, and also to see the bigger picture of the need for kindness with strangers, the community, and even on a vaster, global scale.
  • Provide strong moral role models. Here, researchers stress the need for parents to acknowledge their own mistakes and to listen to kids and help them understand the world and develop empathy.
  • Help kids manage destructive feelings. Feelings such as anger, shame, or envy are unavoidable—but they can be expressed in harmful ways or they can be instructive and constructive. Through conversation, parents can help kids navigate the normal emotional roller-coaster of childhood and adolescence.

Recently, the Seattle Times ran a compelling and wide-ranging interview by columnist Nicole Brodeur with Melinda Gates, philanthropist extraordinaire and co-founder of the Gates Foundation. Ms. Gates, who seems to be a tremendously wise and caring individual, was asked what one piece of advice she has given her three children that she hopes they will remember. Her answer: “…be kind to other people, always find that place inside of other people where you can connect….that’s something that we talk about a lot in our home and live out. Kindness and respect.”

Children’s book author R.J. Palacio contends that most kids are—or have the potential to be—“little warriors of kindness.” That potential is either nurtured or stifled by what they see and hear as they grow. What an immense responsibility then rests on parents, teachers, other adults, and the media.

Even speaking as someone who doesn’t fathom kids, I recognize that it’s up to us adults to see that kindness is encouraged and not repressed. It’s up to us to model the behaviors we hope kids will nurture in themselves. It may be the most important job we have.

It is up to us…are we up to it?

[Next time: bystanders are the key to putting an end to bullying.]

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Attributed to Philo of Alexandria, Plato, and Ian MacLaren)

Big Bullies

“Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” (Karen Armstrong)

Port Ludlow WaterfallEven the best of us can have a bad day and act or speak unkindly.  I’ll bet even Mother Teresa had her snarky moments.  But consistent, repeated, and unrepentant unkindness is more than a slip or a slide.  It’s often the sign of a bully.

In general, people who chronically act unkindly do so out of a terribly misplaced sense of entitlement, or uncontrolled anger, or—as often as not—out of fear.  They may feel threatened, or they may be afraid of rejection or embarrassment, or of appearing weak or stupid.

Many, many years ago I worked with an angry man who boasted quite openly that his philosophy of life was what he called “I.O.” It stood for “instant offense.” In any interaction, this gentleman wanted to have the upper-hand, so he immediately sought ways to put the person he was interacting with on the defensive.

He was a large man, a former ball player, and he knew his size could intimidate. But if that wasn’t enough, he’d ask questions to put someone on the spot, or he’d dismiss their words with a derisive comment and a roll of his eyes. He knew how to look a person up and down and convey to them that he found them lacking. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was simply a bully. All these years later, I find myself wondering what he was afraid of. Did he fear that someone would see through his façade and recognize the insecure man inside? Had he not lived up to expectations—his own or someone else’s—and decided to cover up his disappointment by attacking others before they could recognize what he knew? Perhaps he had been hurt deeply and decided he could avoid a repeat of that experience by inflicting hurt first. Maybe he had been taught that this is how “real men” behave.

I avoided him whenever possible and fortunately didn’t have many occasions to interact with him in the company we worked for.  It would be interesting to encounter him today and see if the passage of time—more than three decades—has mellowed him.  I’d like to understand what was behind his unkindness; I’d like to see the likable qualities in him.  Maybe, after all, he’s just a pussy-cat at heart.  And maybe there are no calories in Ben & Jerry’s peach ice cream.

Adult Bullies

According to the website, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” The site further describes the typical adult bullies:

  1. Narcissistic Adult Bully: This type of adult bully is self-centered and does not share empathy with others. Additionally, they feel little anxiety about consequences. They seem to feel good about themselves, but in reality have a brittle narcissism that requires putting others down. [It’s probably unkind of me to say this, but doesn’t this describe Donald Trump to a tee?]
  2. Impulsive Adult Bully: Adult bullies in this category are more spontaneous and plan their bullying out less. Even if consequences are likely, this adult bully has a hard time restraining his or her behavior. In some cases, this type of bullying may be unintentional, resulting from periods of stress.
  3. Physical Bully: While adult bullying rarely turns to physical confrontation, there are, nonetheless, bullies who use physicality. In some cases, the adult bully may not actually physically harm the victim, but may use a looming threat of harm, or physical domination. Additionally, a physical bully may damage or steal a victim’s property, rather than physically confronting the victim.
  4. Verbal Adult Bully: Words can be quite damaging. Adult bullies who use this type of tactic may start rumors about the victim, or use sarcastic or demeaning language to dominate or humiliate another person. [Trump again?]
  5. Secondary Adult Bully: This is someone who does not initiate the bullying, but joins in so that he or she does not actually become a victim down the road. Secondary bullies may feel bad about what they are doing, but are more concerned about protecting themselves.

The website contends that there is little one can do about an adult bully, “because adult bullies are often in a set pattern. They are not interested in working things out and they are not interested in compromise. Rather, adult bullies are more interested in power and domination. They want to feel as though they are important and preferred, and they accomplish this by bringing others down.”

I’m not willing to concede that easily. I think there must be ways to stand up to bullies and let them know their behavior is not acceptable, and to do it without resorting to their own tactics of threatening or berating—which only shows them the power of bullying. Trying to shame a bully by embarrassing or berating them will probably have the effect of increasing their bullying tendencies. Like my office colleague from so many years ago, they will go into “instant offense” mode and strike wherever they see a likely target.

I don’t think kindness would have been an effective deterrent to that colleague’s bullying. He would probably have equated kindness with weakness and flexed his muscles all the more.

What might have been effective would have been for witnesses to let him know his behavior was unacceptable. Instead of remaining silent, colleagues and peers should have stepped in and calmly said, “Not cool, buddy.” Most bullies will back down—or at least back-off—if they see witnesses rallying to support the bully’s victim.

Perhaps the smartest thing to do when one is thrown into a situation with a bully is to get out. Don’t engage, don’t react in kind. Simply exit and avoid future interactions. But, of course, that’s not always possible. Sometimes the bullies in our lives are people we cannot avoid.

I keep thinking about the old adage that “the best revenge is a good life,” and that’s probably a good way to look at bullying in the long-term. But when one is actively being bullied or harassed, it does little good to think, “Hey, sport, in ten years I’ll have a great life and you’ll still be a colossal jerk.”

If we are not the bully’s target, but find ourselves in the position of witness or bystander, we need to step in and let the perpetrator know—in no uncertain terms—that such behavior is unacceptable. There is a place for kindness here, because if we can step in without expressing our anger or contempt, we can defuse the situation. Psychopaths and maniacs are to be seriously avoided, but your garden-variety bully might be tempered with judicious kindness.

Kindness requires action and it sometimes requires courage. When we witness bullying, we can’t ignore it and just be a bystander. Bullying is fostered by silence. We need to step in, speak up, and stand for what we know to be right.

Easier said than done, but kindness isn’t always easy … it is, though, always right.

It’s one thing to be an adult dealing with bullies—we have more options, more experience, more perspective, and more power—but children facing bullying can be devastated by it, and face lifelong consequences as a result. Let’s explore that next time. Please share your thoughts on bullying, at any age….

“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.” (Khalil Gibran)


Oh, Mr. Sandman … Sleep’s Role in Making Us Kinder and More Ethical

“Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” (Walt Whitman)

sleepy guy at computerLast week’s post speculated on an alternate future for Cinderella. Today, Sleeping Beauty visits YOLK. And most welcome she is.

Sleep is a pastime I’ve come to value more as I age. Hence, I’m always pleased to read new research describing the benefits of sleep and prescribing seven to eight hours of that magic elixir.

Among the splendid benefits of a good night’s sleep:

  • It improves memory
  • It helps us live longer and reduces inflammation that often leads to serious health problems
  • We are less prone to accidents
  • It helps us be more creative
  • It helps students do better in school
  • It improves athletic performance
  • It lowers stress
  • We are less likely to suffer from depression
  • It helps us achieve and maintain a healthy weight

And recently I encountered another: Adequate sleep makes us more ethical.

A study published in the journal of the Academy of Management found that a lack of sleep led not only to poor performance, more accidents, and decreased productivity, but also to increased deviant and unethical behaviors. The researchers, Michael Christian and Aleksander Ellis, report that sleep deprivation results in lower brain functioning, especially in the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that controls what they call “executive” functions, related to self-control of emotions and behaviors. Our prefrontal cortex is fueled by glucose, and inadequate sleep starves us of that glucose, resulting in a reduced ability to recognize and resist temptation. With adequate sleep and ample brain glucose, we easily resist any impulse to lie, cheat, or steal, but when we are sleep- and glucose-deprived, we are much more likely to succumb to the lure of lying, cutting corners, or other unethical behaviors.

In a Harvard Business Review article, researcher Christopher Barnes of the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business reported similar results on the effects of sleep on ethical behavior. His work also revealed that it doesn’t take much of a sleep deficit to make a difference. In one of his studies, the subjects who cheated had only 22 minutes less sleep than the non-cheaters. Barnes further cited studies showing that lack of sleep leads to deviant behavior at work, such as falsifying receipts, claiming credit for another’s work, or lying. He also notes that in business it is often those who are in the most important or prominent positions who are most sleep-deprived—perhaps explaining some high-profile ethical lapses we’ve seen in the corporate world in recent years.

He concludes that “Organizations need to give sleep more respect. Executives and managers should keep in mind that the more they push employees to work late, come to the office early, and answer emails and calls at all hours, the more they invite unethical behavior to creep in.”

America is often referred to as a sleep-deprived nation. It makes me wonder just how much of the bad behavior we see and read about daily is attributable to tired people intersecting with other tired people and neither making the best choices.

It’s not a big leap to conclude that adequate sleep is an important element of kindness. While I’m no scientist, I know from my own experience that when I’m especially tired I’m not as kind as I am when I am rested and refreshed. It’s not that I am overtly unkind—though I’ve been known to be snappish when weary—but I bypass opportunities to extend kindness. I’m just too tired. Or maybe I’m just oblivious. Whatever it is, when sleep deprived it’s harder to summon the energy for kindness. Whether it’s offering assistance, writing an encouraging note, or feeding apples to the neighbors’ horses, there are times when I’m. Just. Too. Tired.

I could tell myself that I’m foregoing kindness toward others to extend some self-care or kindness to myself when I’m worn-out. And it’s true that the best thing to do when we’re running on empty is to sit down, take a nap, go to bed early or sleep later in the morning. Good advice and also a good reminder to pay attention so we recognize our own symptoms of fatigue.

But it doesn’t need to be an either/or. I’ve also noticed that if I overcome the inertia of my fatigue and step forward to offer assistance, write the kind note, feed the horses, I get a sudden jolt of energy, much like I get with an extra-hot, non-fat caramel macchiato on a cold winter morning. So, extending kindness when tired might be as replenishing as a cat-nap, or a jolt of java. [I’ve yet to see a study comparing the effects of caffeine with the effects of kindness, but I am more than willing to be a subject—in either of the control groups—if someone wants to take it on.  Whataya say, Starbucks?]

Just as it’s easier to solve complex problems or learn new things when well-rested, I contend it’s also easier to be kind. So next time you hit “snooze” on the alarm and roll over for just another 20 minutes of sleep, remember that you’re doing the world a favor: you’ll be a kinder and more ethical person for it. The world needs that. Thank you.

As for me, Sleeping Beauty is going to go replenish the glucose in her prefrontal cortex….

“My father said there were two kinds of people in the world: givers and takers. The takers may eat better, but the givers sleep better.” (Marlo Thomas)

Bippidi-Boppidi-Boo: The Magic of Kindness

“When you open a door for others, you sometimes open doors for yourself.” (Donald L. Hicks)

CinderellaImagine if Cinderella had been too shy to go to the ball. It would have been a very different story, or, in fact, no story at all. Had she demurred when her fairy godmother offered her a shimmering gown, glass slippers, and a golden coach, her fate would have been to continue as servant and drudge to her demanding stepmother and selfish stepsisters. Years later, tired and worn down by life, she might have thought regretfully about the night she said no because she was too afraid to say yes. So much for happily ever after.

Fortunately for her—and for six-year-old girls everywhere—Cindy was confident and eager to suit up and ride her pimped-out pumpkin to the palace where she became belle of the ball.

But there are thousands of people who face Cindy’s choice daily—though on a smaller and less-Disneyesque scale—and they hold back, out of fear and social anxiety. They feel a paralyzing dread at the thought of entering a social situation—be it attending a party, meeting new people, or speaking out at a meeting. Help is at hand, though, in the form of new research from our friends to the north, showing that kindness alleviates social anxiety.

Social anxiety is more than shyness. According to the Social Anxiety Institute: ”Social anxiety is the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance, … feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.” It is a debilitating condition, isolating the sufferer and often preventing them from developing intimacy or close relationships.

A study recently published in the Journal of Motivation and Emotion by researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia revealed that engaging in acts of kindness reduced levels of social anxiety and social avoidance.

The study divided college students with social anxiety issues into three groups. One was directed to simply keep a diary of their experiences and emotions, another was exposed to different socialization situations, and the third was instructed to perform acts of kindness—three acts of kindness a day for two days a week over the course of four weeks. The kindnesses could be as simple as mowing a neighbor’s lawn, donating to charity, or washing a roommate’s dishes, and were defined as “acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to oneself.”

After a month, the group tasked with performing acts of kindness reported lower levels of discomfort and anxiety about social interaction than either of the other two groups.

The researchers concluded that “acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions (and expectations) of the social environment. This is likely to occur early in the intervention as participants anticipate positive reactions from others in response to their kindness, decreasing the perceived need to avoid negative social outcomes.”

So… we feel better about ourselves and our environment when we extend kindness, and we also expect better reactions and results. Thus, we are less fearful. Makes sense.

I suspect, also, that when we are engaged in kind acts, our attention is on the act or the object of it, and we are less aware of our own worries. While this study didn’t specifically look at people performing kindnesses in the social situations that frighten them, I imagine entering such situations with the intent of finding opportunities to be kind would go far to alleviate the fear. It would divert us from feeling self-conscious and worrying about how we are being judged.

While most of us don’t suffer from debilitating social anxiety, this study of kindness can likely be extrapolated to anyone who experiences discomfort in social situations—whether a cocktail party, public speaking, weddings, funerals, or the dating scene. If we replace worrying with looking for opportunities to be kind, we may very well discover that the event we dreaded was enjoyable and painless. And perhaps we’ll be the proverbial belle of the ball.

As Cinderella might, say, “If the shoe fits….”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  (Dalai Lama)

At the Halfway Point…

“Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” (Roger Ebert)

tightrope walkerI’ve reached the halfway point in my year of living kindly. As I did at the end of the first quarter, it’s time to pause for a self-assessment.

At the end of March I gave myself a report card, with an overall grade of C+. I generally felt I was on the right track, but maybe not making enough effort or stepping out of my comfort zone often enough. A few of my friends chastised me (but did so very kindly) for being hard on myself—in fact for being unkind to myself. My husband broke his silence and posted a rant, noting he had made no such commitment to kindness.

So, this time I’ll look for a less judgmental way to evaluate my progress toward living a kind life. Maybe some open-ended questions that don’t require arbitrary scoring and potential self-flagellation. This format appeals to my periodic dual persona, plus, after six months, I’ve finally realized that my blog has a delightful acronym.

YOLK: Have you noticed a difference in your life after making this year-long commitment to kindness?

Me: I have. I feel kinder inside. It may not be evident to anyone else, but I think I am kinder. I think about kindness a lot, and I actively look for it. I do believe it directs my attention in very positive ways.

YOLK: What have been your biggest ah-has?

Me: One of my biggest ah-has is how many ah-has there are, so this is not going to be a short answer. A huge ah-ha is the role of mindfulness in kindness. All I need to do is pay attention and I see that opportunities to extend kindness are everywhere. I think we often operate on automatic-pilot, oblivious to the people and circumstances around us, and the difference a word, a smile, or an act of kindness could make. I’ve come to see that the simple reminder to “pay attention” may be one of the universal secrets to a good life.

Somewhat related to this is the power of the pause. That’s huge. Instead of speaking or acting in instant response to a situation, taking the time to pause and think about what I want my response to activate—and why—has been very powerful. In the space of that brief pause, I might totally change my reaction, or perhaps decide not to respond at all. That pause has always guided me to a better place. I frequently reflect on the four questions Rotarians pause to ask:

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and friendship?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

If the answer to any is no, choose silence. Who knew Rotarians were so wise?

Another ah-ha is how much kindness there is all around. My eyes and ears are more attuned to it, and I see it everywhere. Big kindness and little kindness. They’re ubiquitous. I’ve also become more aware than ever of just how tremendously kind my husband is—to friends, to neighbors, to strangers, even to me. I married good, Mom. Bill will probably take issue with this, because he has a cynical, skeptical scientist reputation to uphold, but it’s true.

The last big ah-ha is probably that when I see unkindness, it’s easier now to see what might be behind it—fear, embarrassment, insecurity, obliviousness—and to be a bit less judge-y.

YOLK: Where do you still have the most work to do?

Me: You may have noticed that I said a bit less judge-y. I’m still too quick to judge when I see someone do something unkind (often while behind the wheel—that particular location seems to bring out the worst in the best of us…especially in Seattle traffic). I need to do a better job of activating my curiosity so I can imagine a good reason why someone cuts another person off in traffic or blares their horn and offers a rude hand gesture. I need to be more adept at giving the benefit of the doubt.  Additionally, there are always more ways to express and extend kindness; I hope to find them in the next six months.

YOLK: Has anything surprised you?

Me: I am surprised daily, sometimes hourly, and am in a perpetual state of wonder, both over the kindnesses and the unkindnesses I see, hear, or read about. I’ve also been surprised by the whole business of blogging. Putting a commitment out there in a very public way is at times scary, daunting, and certainly counter to my generally private and introverted nature. Nonetheless, I love it and I’ve connected with some wise, smart, and delightful people as a result. It’s been a great lesson in risk-taking at a time when I was ready to inject some risk into my life. It’s also been a good lesson in making my self-imposed deadlines, as I’ve often related to the wonderful Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

But getting back to kindness, perhaps the biggest surprise has also been the simplest. This commitment to kindness feels right—it is exactly what I should be doing and want to be doing at this exact moment in my life. How cool is that?

YOLK: Okay, because I know you better than you know yourself, I know you haven’t entirely given up on that letter grade method of appraisal. What say you?

Me: B-minus, but a tarnished silver star for good intentions….

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness.” (Seneca)