Today’s parents are raising tomorrow’s bullies. Harsh? Relational aggression is harsh. We are witnessing Lord of the Flies,where children form their own social rules and hierarchies.
In the story, a plane crashes on a desert island, the sole survivors being boys under 13 years of age. Two boys emerge as leaders, and one is elected chief by vote of all. The order gradually breaks down, however, until the followers of one boy turn animalistic, while the other group maintains a fire to alert passing ships. As the story closes, the deterioration is such that the first group is on a manhunt for the leader of the second group. When the action is most fierce, and one boy is likely to die, it is interrupted by a naval officer, who has seen the fire and landed on the island. He believes the boys have been playing a game. The appearance of one adult—only one—has changed their deadly interaction into a game.
We read of incidents that replicate that dynamic, often with fatal consequences. Isn’t it time we focused on where it starts? And it starts with very young children, whose seeds of assertiveness grow into bullying in the context of how we treat others.
My children’s theatre class offers ample opportunity for 5- and 6-year-olds to tell others what to do. The intention and energy of a remark determine whether another child feels afflicted or nurtured. If our play calls for a prince, and one child says, in a critical tone, “that’s not how a prince acts,” the second child can deflect the intention by saying, “That is the way a prince acts.” Or he may be cowed, and say, “I don’t want to be the prince.”
Dignity of the child
Ideally, children learn to counter negative intent with no adult involvement. When I overhear uncharitable remarks, I notice how children respond on their own. If the second child deflects the negativism, I let them work it out. But if the child feels diminished, I help both children consider a different interaction. Sometimes it’s sufficient to say, “who says that’s not the way a prince acts?” My reaction to negative intent is crucial, and if I let one hurtful remark pass, others will follow.
We are all potential bullies, and bullying assumes one party has more power than the other, through physical strength, or mental fortitude. Energy of response is key, and ultimately, we all must learn to stand up for ourselves. If children learn early to deflect harmful intent with their own energy, with no adult intervention, they may avoid the descent to violent response. Parents and teachers can instill a sense of dignity by coaching and modeling, and by insisting on charitable behavior.
Actions have consequences
Interaction with parents is the first place where bullying seeds take root. You have witnessed scenes in public: a child screaming for a toy that mom has in her bag. Tolerance for that type of behavior is water on the seeds.
I once saw a mother “correct” her daughter, who often pushed others to get what she wanted. The mother said, “Jennifer, did you push me? That’s not nice. Say you’re sorry.” The words were right, but the mother’s tone of voice could have been “let’s sit down to dinner.” Nothing suggested to the child that her behavior was unacceptable, nor that there would be consequences for her actions.
In the home, parents should constantly ensure that all children (their own and visitors) know what is acceptable and not. This means consequences if the behavior is mean-spirited or disrespectful. “Disrespectful” may mean a tone of voice, a look, or an exclamation. Consequences must be strong enough to make the child pause before committing the same act. It may be as simple as losing a privilege, e.g., no TV tonight. The hard part? Having the fortitude to apply the sanction without relenting.
Parents unwilling to apply consequences to their child’s negative actions are surprised when their teenager attacks them verbally or otherwise. They have only themselves to blame. By the time teens are bullying gays, or anyone, it’s too late. They have learned that they can act with impunity. Children as young as 4 or 5 should know that some behaviors are acceptable and some not. The positive side is that time invested early yields fruit.
What’s the answer?
Start by modeling and inculcating manners, or behavior that respects the dignity of others: addressing people respectfully, saying “hello” when meeting someone, not pushing in line, watching out for smaller children, not interrupting a conversation, and the rest. Children learn that manners is part of being a grown-up (all children want to be treated as grown-ups). It takes constancy by parents and teachers, and a willingness to forego instant popularity. But our sons and daughters will thank us later if we do it.