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, www.kindness-matters.org, 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 www.kindness-matters.org, 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)

4 thoughts on “Little Bullies

  1. At my all-girls school in London in the 1950s/60s, one or two girls bullied me and my friend by making us expose our breasts (difficult for us to do at that age and in that era) and compare them with theirs – a humiliating and disempowering experience. Thanks for this excellent post – I was particularly struck by the Harvard study and its recommendations.

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    • Thanks, Carol, for your willingness to share that experience. It makes me wonder what kind of women those girls turned out to be and whether they’ve ever felt regret for the bullying they engaged in as children and adolescents. You and your friend were probably two among many victims. Thanks for another of your always thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. they are much appreciated!

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  2. Yes, girls bully, too, though perhaps more subtly than boys. Remember the Seinfeld episode where the guys are talking about a bully they once knew? And Elaine says, “Boys are sick.” When asked what girls do, she shrugs and says, off-handedly, “We just tease someone until they develop an eating disorder.”

    Margaret Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye” is a chillingly-memorable tale of just how cruel teenaged girls are capable of being to one another.

    When I was in elementary school, there were a couple of girls — and it was only when they were a pack of two, never alone — who would follow me the several blocks’ walk home, taunting me mercilessly. I don’t remember how long that went on, but all these decades later, I still clearly recall how painful the experience was.

    Just this week, my sister texted how anxious she is about her 10-year-old daughter going to camp — because a girl who’s been bullying her will also be there. Like it is for everything else in life, I guess childhood is the training ground for how we deal with the little bullies who grow up to be big bullies.

    At the very least, let’s not vote them into political office!

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  3. Amen to not electing bullies, Kris! Thanks for your comment. It’s terrible how a childhood experience of being bullied stays with us for a lifetime. If only kids were more aware of the pain they can inflict. Interesting, too, how they don’t do it alone–they either need a co-conspirator, or they need the audience. I hope your niece’s time at camp isn’t ruined by a bully. Maybe the unfamiliar setting will change the dynamic. Thanks again for commenting, Kris.

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