Who remembers the kids on the backs of milk cartons? If you grew up in the 70’s & 80’s you surely pondered those poor kids’ fates as you poured your umpteenth bowl of Cap’n Crunch®. These images were part of the missing children campaign, which quickly gained the nation’s attention in the early 80’s, transforming America’s perception of reality. Our children were in danger – Stranger Danger, and something had to be done.
The Birth of an Epidemic
The 80’s saw an explosion of public awareness to the plight of children as victims. Advocacy groups for the victims of abuse & neglect, child snatching (by a noncustodial parent), runaways, and child abduction were all working to bring their individual issues to prominence. Through their concerted efforts, and with the horrific stories of Etan Patz (kidnapped in 1979) and Adam Walsh (abducted and murdered in 1981) being burned into the public psyche via the newly created 24-hour news cycle (CNN was founded in 1980) , Congress created the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 1984. What had previously been recognized as separate issues became the monolith that it is today, and this was intentional. Kristen C. Brown of Child Find (a child snatching advocacy group) said it herself in a 1981 Senate hearing:
“It is absolutely critical that we establish a policy which guarantees that the various criteria used to determine whether or not a child is to be considered a missing child be subject to the most generous interpretation. We must not begin by discriminating kinds of missing children.” (Best, 1990)
The martial art industry was perfectly positioned to help in the war on this apparent epidemic. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s we were all caught up in the fervor, doing our part to teach our students about Stranger Danger. While we may have had the best of intentions, we were wrong. In fact the NCMEC finally admitted this in 2017 (better late than never). The vast majority of strangers are no more a threat to our children than we are, yet the specter of a dangerous stranger became the social norm; the result of an emotional campaign based on disingenuous manipulation of the statistics. There was never a huge increase in these horrific crimes. They greatly overstated the estimates, and lumped runaways, and kids taken in custody disputes (which current estimates put at over 90% and 5% respectively of the total missing) in with the visceral images of actual stranger abductions (less than 1%), thereby inspiring us to take action. What a terribly inaccurate message to be communicating to children.
“Now Gentlemen, I am going to indulge in one of the favorite techniques used in the past to generate a reaction on the part of legislators. I am going to tell you a story from real life, imply that it represents the tip of an iceberg and infer that only you can offer redress, justice or correction. It worked before, why not again?
-Charles A Sutherland (U.S. House 1986c, 92)
I am afraid that once again we martial art instructors are going to end up on the wrong side of history. Today’s buzzword is Bullying. A quick google search brings up 1000’s of books, websites, and programs devoted to the menace, and advising you on how best to protect your child. The rhetoric and statistics used to warrant the products being peddled are just as scary as that used for missing children back in the 80’s. State legislatures have passed laws directing school districts to establish policies to address the epidemic. Even the martial art industry is on board, developing programs to help “bully-proof” students – and why wouldn’t we? We are supposed to be experts in self defense, right? While all of this is done with the best of intentions, we’re often missing the mark. Our over-reaction to a threat that barely exists is in many ways harming the very children we’re trying to take care of.
My issues with the current tone of the discussion, and how we present this information to children, can be broken into five main problems:
- As I pointed out in previous posts, the current definition of bullying has become too broad. We have lowered the threshold of what constitutes bullying by not emphasizing a) the threat of physical violence in conjunction with the other phenomena, b) the repetitive nature, and c) the intent. Since many of the phenomena are also normal components of child development, this has blurred the lines between pathological and normal, such that any perceived slight now potentially qualifies as bullying.
- Given the age of our junior martial art students (4 – 15) most of the behaviors currently listed as bullying are more often than not, unintentional – the result of the social ineptitude, lacking impulse control, and cognitive ability common at these ages. When adults view such common childhood behaviors as bullying, we are projecting an adult level of understanding and intent that simply isn’t there for children.
- This lowered threshold diminishes or trivializes the severity of the earlier pathology, (what I would term actual bullying) as well as the suffering of it’s victims.
- The concepts of the bully, the victim/target, and bystander constitute dichotomous, or black-and-white thinking. This oversimplification is convenient, but forces children into preconceived roles. Such labeling reinforces what psychologist Carol Dweck, (2007) calls a fixed mindset as opposed to a growth mindset, and precludes the many other very real, and more-than-likely, possibilities.
- The resulting feelings have become a defining factor. “If you feel traumatized, you may have been bullied.” In addition to the obvious problems with such a subjective standard, by equating emotional pain with physical pain, we make feelings fact; we’re teaching children they are fragile. When combined with the bully-victim construct, this reinforces victimhood – your feelings are somebody else’s fault. We need to help our students recognize their individual agency, rather than tell them they’re victims to other’s words and their own often volatile emotional state. They need to learn to be resilient, or better yet, anti-fragile – to remember the admonishment,
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
Currently there is too much misleading hype and rhetoric surrounding the concept of bullying. This has led to public misconception as to what the threat is and it’s severity. As this plays out in the public forum, the public’s understanding of what bullying is, and what it is not, should evolve into a better, more concise picture. This clarity will enable us to develop better responses. The question is, are we leading the way, or will we end up on the wrong side of history?
Next week: How martial arts should help lead the way.
See you on the mat.
Best, J. (1990). Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern About Child-Victims. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books
Haslam, N. (2016). Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology. Psychological Inquiry, 27(1). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2690955
Porter, S. (2013). Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House