“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” (James Baldwin)
I don’t have kids. Every time I am moved to write about kids, I feel obliged to footnote that fact. I’ve never been in the trenches of raising them, of watching them take first steps and then fall on their butts, of witnessing them learn and grow and miraculously develop into autonomous little humans. I haven’t vicariously shared their wins, their losses, or their wounds—and felt these so deeply that I feared my heart would break.
For some kids, the pandemic offered a respite from bullying. Remote schooling provided a break from name-calling, playground taunts, and the accompanying shame and insecurity. However, remote schooling came with a cost—many costs. We’re learning that many kids are now lagging a year or more behind in academic skills. They’re reading at lower levels, and testing poorly in nearly every subject.
And it’s not just academics that have fallen behind. Studies are now showing that kids have lost a year or more in their social development. One way this is manifesting now that schools have resumed in-person learning is that bullying is back and often worse than ever.
In a recent opinion piece, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Maureen Downey cites recent studies highlighting the increase in bullying among middle-school and high-school-age kids. While bullying comes in many forms, “relational aggression,” is the most frequent. It’s not physical bullying—like kicking, shoving, or punching—but rather it centers on social exclusion: shunning, spreading harmful rumors, and excluding kids from activities with their peers. These actions are just as harmful as physical bullying.
In that same article, Erin Mason, professor of counseling at Georgia State University, says school counselors are noting delayed social maturation. “This social delay is because students have not been in normal situations over the past two-plus years where they could experience normal social development. All of that was disrupted.”
Mason also cites “the political divide happening in our country” as another reason for increased bullying. “Kids soak up what they see online and in the media. In many cases, they may be acting out what they’re seeing.”
In my last post, I wrote about a couple of big bullies, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his Texas counterpart, Greg Abbott. Tweedledee and Tweedledum have been proudly and gleefully abandoning migrants—as if they were nothing more than human debris—in cities where they will become the problem of “the libs.” That these “gentlemen” are in positions of power—at least one of them aspiring to the White House in 2024—is both scary and shameful. They are demonstrating the worst of eighth-grade behaviors. And unless we the voters intervene, they will continue to offer themselves as negative—but high profile—role models.
What’s the solution? Like most complex situations, there isn’t a single answer that will address such a pervasive challenge. But most experts agree that parents can’t ignore what’s happening, they need to talk with their kids. About the kinds of bullying we’re seeing in the media and among politicians and celebrities, and about the specific instances of bullying their kids may be seeing or experiencing at school.
And it’s not just the kids who are being bullied with whom conversations need to take place. Kids who engage in bullying need help, too. The messages they’ve absorbed about how to be popular or accepted have led them to become aggressors. They may not be aware that alternative behavioral pathways are open to them. Of course, if a child-bully’s parent is also a bully—which is very often the case—parental conversations may not be a solution. Teachers and school counselors have an important role in the bullying dynamic. So do other adults in a child’s life.
Conversations also need to take place with that substantial majority of kids who are neither bullies nor bullied. As bystanders, they have the power to egg on a bully or to shut them down. A lot of kids do nothing, because they’re afraid the bully may turn on them, but studies show that if one kid has the courage to speak up, to take the side of the child being bullied, to say “stop, that’s not cool,” others will join in and the bully will stop.
And how about us adult bystanders? Are we going to stay silent when we see politicians, celebrities, or the guy down the street bullying people and dehumanizing them? Are we going to just tsk-tsk as they bully their way through our courts, and into the highest offices in the land? Or are we going to speak out loudly, and amplify our voices by how we vote, how we support candidates, and how we model good behavior?
Though I don’t have kids, I have a lot of hope that kids are going to lead a crusade that will turn this world back in a positive direction—socially, politically, and environmentally. We’ve failed them in so many ways. Can we help them become better people than we are?
“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” (L.R. Knost)