Epidemic Du Jour

We’ve all seen the headlines, and it seems there is always something in the news of epidemic proportions. Like the proverbial broken clock, the media gets it right now and then, but most of the time, the only epidemic is the their hyperbolic use of the term. The media fans the flames of fear at every opportunity in a population of parents already suffering from a bad case of what authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018) term “safetyism.” Sadly, bullying has been no exception. A quick google search of bullying statistics would lead one to believe our children are under assault in schools rife with bullies. Being skeptical, I can’t help but wonder if such fear-mongering is warranted.

The hyped-up epidemic of bullying in our schools.

How could it be that within the context of an ever more peaceful society (all forms of violent crime in the U.S. have been on the decline since the mid 1990’s) our children are becoming more aggressive? The answer is simple: they’re not. The numbers telling us there’s an epidemic are due to a semantic shift rather than a degradation of childhood behavior. The bullying of the past has been replaced by a newer, expanded version.

“The explosion we’re seeing in bullying is due to our expanded definition of it, not to a shift in behavior, and this fact alone should serve to calm us all down.”

– Susan Porter, PhD (2013)

In his paper Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Nick Haslam discusses how the concept of bullying has expanded to include a more broad range of behaviors. Dan Olweus originally proposed that bullying involves aggressive or otherwise negative actions directed towards a child by one or more other people. Three elements distinguish it from other similar behaviors – bullying is:

  1. intentional
  2. repetitive
  3. carried out in the context of a power imbalance.

Over the past three decades the definition has expanded to include cyber bullying, and workplace bullying, and incorporated the relational or social bullying we see in the new & improved version. It has also loosened it’s emphasis on all three of the core elements. Notice that the Federal definition never mentions intent, and the negative actions need only have the potential to happen more than once. The power imbalance was traditionally “understood primarily in terms of size, age, or number, as when one child was victimized by a group,” thus “making it difficult for victims to defend themselves.” Now it has grown to include more subjective standards such as the perceived peer-group status, popularity, or even self-confidence. (Haslam, 2016)

Consider…. While picking up my daughter from school recently, I saw a brief exchange between her and a couple friends. While she was talking to friend (A), another friend (B) came up and asked her if she’d like to play at recess the next day. She replied that she was planning on playing with A, at which point, B walked away in tears, because she didn’t want to play with A. This also happened a number of times last year (repetitive), my daughter is popular (power imbalance, albeit perceived), and she excluded somebody (social bullying). By definition, this is bullying behavior, and as such warrants a heavy-handed response. Seriously?!

This semantic glitch is convoluting the public discourse with well-intentioned, but ultimately harmful anti-bully hysteria. It conflates a broad range of phenomena, as I discussed here and here, most of which are not pathological, but simply developmental. If we are serious about helping today’s youth, we need to step back and recognize the difference.

More on this next week…

Until then, see you on the mat.

image credit: Alexander Sidorov

Haidt, T. & Lukianoff, G. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for failureNew York, NY: Penguin Press.

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

What is Bullying?

The Federal government, via their StopBullying.gov website, defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” (click here to read the definition in its entirety.) Try teaching that to a group of elementary school children! Indeed, even adults struggle with clearly understanding what constitutes bullying. Yet before we can seriously address an issue, we have to understand what it is.

Just joking around, rough housing, or bullying?

Much of the confusion comes from the fact that what society has tried to define as Bullying is in reality an entire spectrum of different, but often related, phenomena. The spectrum of behaviors spans from being inconsiderate to defamation, from rough housing to assault, from mean to sociopathic. The Venn diagram below is an attempt to give clarity to the federal definition – to more precisely delineate the different phenomena using the current vernacular, with a couple slight modifications. The physical is represented by purple spheres, the verbal, or Communicative, by blue, and Social, or Relational, by green.
bullying venn 3

Consider that teasing, name-calling, taunting, and rude hand gestures, as well as hitting, pushing, pinching, and tripping are listed as bullying behaviors on the Federal site. How does the joking around and rough housing of childhood become symptomatic of pathological behavior? One way to distinguish between healthy play and having gone too far is the willingness of the participants. Once verbal acts are “unwanted,” they could be viewed as rude and inconsiderate. Unwanted physical acts, on the other hand, become assault.

The acts labeled Social, or Relational, Bullying are different than the other two in that there isn’t really an acceptable level. Telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about someone, and embarrassing someone in public are all rude and inconsiderate. Purposely leaving someone out seems to be the exception – are people really expected to invite everybody to their party?

What transforms these otherwise typical human behaviors from rude & inconsiderate into bullying is three-fold. Rude, or inconsiderate behavior becomes bullying when: (1) there is an imbalance of power,(real or perceived) (2) the behaviors happen repeatedly, (or could be) AND (3) it is intentional. (note: intentionality was part of the earliest definitions of bullying, but is missing from the current official definition)

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

-Abraham  Maslow (The Psychology of Science)

It should be apparent that there is no simple, one-size-fits-all fix for such a multifaceted issue. It is a detrimental mistake to lump so many common juvenile behaviors under the pathological umbrella Bullying. A sincere proposal to teach our children how to deal with all of this must therefore acknowledge the full-spectrum of what we term bullying, accurately differentiate between phenomena, and develop an age-appropriate set of skills for dealing with each.

More on this topic next week…

Until then, see you on the mat.

image credit: Acoso escolar

Throwing Out the Baby

October is upon us, and with it comes the fall weather, and the knowledge that Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are right around the corner. Indeed, we’re already seeing it in the marketplace as vendors stock their shelves with seasonal holiday products too far in advance. (Santa will be on the shelf before our kids have finished trick-or-treating.) October is also National Bullying Prevention Month, so we’re sure to be bombarded in the media with scary statistics, and anecdotal tales, while those professing to have a fix peddle their wares.

As a parent and a martial art instructor, I want to know the facts in order to best prepare my children and students for the world in which we live. For the month of October, our posts will be an attempt to add some clarity on the subject of bullying.

In his paper Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Nick Haslam discusses how concepts like bullying have been expanded to “encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.” They are extended outward to include new phenomena and downward to include less extreme phenomena. Potential benefits of such expansion include recognizing formerly tolerated negative behavior as problematic, and increased sensitivity to others suffering or maltreatment. There are, however, a number of problems that come with this expansion.

Some Bullies tease, but not all teasing is bullying.

Teasing is one of the casualties in the ever-expanding definition of Bullying. The two are often used synonymously in the media and much of the available “anti-bully” literature. This semantic overlap has led to much confusion and mis-information for parents. It is also a headache for teachers and school administrators. As they work to establish legally mandated “learning environments free from distractions,” they create so-called zero-tolerance policies regarding bullying. In other words, NO TEASING ALLOWED.

There is an extensive body of academic literature studying the many cultural facets of teasing and it’s beneficial role in human communication. As explained by Kruger, Gordon, and Kuban (2006),

“To be sure, some teasing is designed with the sole purpose of hurting, humiliating, or harassing the target of the tease. But often, individuals tease to flirt, socialize, play, enhance social bonds, teach, entertain (themselves, the target, or an audience), or to express affiliation, affection, and even love (p. 412).”

In The Good, the Bad, and the Borderline: Separating Teasing from Bullying (2009), Mills and Carwile thoroughly discuss teasing, it’s relationship to bullying, and it’s value as a communicative device. While teasing can be used by bullies in a negative, aggressive manner, teasing also plays a very beneficial roll in our interpersonal interactions. For a more in-depth look click here.

Teasing is very nuanced, utilizing humor, innuendo, sarcasm, and irony to indirectly communicate the intended message. Even as adults we oftentimes misinterpret the intent of someone’s witty or sarcastic quips. How can our children grow into strong, high-functioning adults, if they aren’t given the opportunity to develop this skill?

Rather than eliminating all forms of teasing in a misguided attempt of protecting our children, as parents and educators we need to do the hard work of distinguishing between the positive, beneficial forms and the negative. We need to allow children the opportunity to fine-tune these skills themselves, and help guide them through the sometimes murky waters of human communication. This understanding will make them stronger, more resilient, and more safe, enabling them to more effectively discern healthy human interaction from the threat of a bully. Otherwise, we’re just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

See you on the mat.

image credit: stopbullying.gov


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

Kruger, J., Gordon, C., & Kuban, J. (2006). Intentions in teasing: When ‘‘just kidding’’ just isn’t good enough. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 412􏰀425.

Mills, C. B. (2009, April). Communication Education. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Carol_Bishop_Mills/publication/263612607_The_Good_the_Bad_and_the_Borderline_Separating_Teasing_from_Bullying/links/58a72725a6fdcc0e078ae9c7/The-Good-the-Bad-and-the-Borderline-Separating-Teasing-from-Bullying.pdf

The Remedy to the Bully Epidemic

As we close out October, and National Bully Awareness Month, we get to wrap up this bullying series on a high note. Repeat after me: “there is no epidemic.” The children of today are no more evil, nor ill-intentioned, than they were when we were kids. No matter how many websites quote horrific stats as to how bad the problem is, remember these numbers are not based on an increase in peer aggression and negative behavior in children, but are due to an all-encompassing expansion of the definition.

As parents and educators, we need to distinguish between very real dangers, such as automobile accidents and drowning, and the pain and anguish caused by less-than-pleasant phenomena of childhood: peer aggression, teasing, taunting, name-calling, and social exclusion. The former can lead to dismemberment and death, whereas the latter, although unpleasant, are mostly benign.

Rather than treating these as threats to our children’s well-being, we need to recognize them as opportunities for growth; these teachable moments present the perfect opportunity to help our children realize their personal agency, and their resiliency. We must remember this is a long, complicated process. Children are still developing their understanding of the nuance of body language, intonation, inflection, humor, sarcasm, and timing. They’re still learning how to filter what they say, consider other’s feelings, and how to follow the rules. In fact, the areas of the brain responsible for cognition, following rules, suppressing impulses, reasoning, and decision making are still developing as well.

If we’re serious about helping our students, we must stop type-casting the players. The current bully-victim-bystander model stands in the way of all this development. It reinforces roles which assume intent on the part of the bully, and a victimhood mindset on the part of the target. Neither of these fixed mindsets is conducive to learning and growth. We should be helping students adjust behavior, but we can’t effectively address the various behaviors when they’re all lumped under bullying. We need to more effectively delineate the pathology of bullying, and the common childhood phenomena of peer aggression, impulse control, teasing, etc. Then we can teach our children effective means of dealing with each. For these reasons, the bully-victim-bystander model should not be used in an educational (K-12) setting.

We should be teaching our students that they and their peers have the capacity to  grow and learn, to be better versions of themselves every day. They can learn better communication skills, become more civically minded, and develop a deeper sense of empathy. They can increase their self-control, self-esteem, and learn to defend themselves. These are the tools that will enable them to deal with all the trials and tribulations of childhood, and to thrive as adolescents. All they require is guidance, experience, and time.

“Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.”

-Anonymous

We need to remember that just like BJJ, our ability to get along with others, communicate our ideas, and understand others’ intent takes years of “mat time.” Children can be given instruction on the rules, and taught different methods of dealing with the most common issues. However, we have to remember the majority of learning and understanding comes from actual application. This means there will be successes and failures, they’re going to make mistakes – they will offend and be offended, insult and be insulted, hurt others’ feelings and have their’s hurt. As we continue to coach in between rounds, they will gradually gain an ever-better understanding of the full spectrum of human interaction. They will gain the skill, and the strength to succeed.

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

 

Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

With October we’re witnessing the transition to fall. Cooling temperatures bring about change, as green turns to gold, brown, and crimson, and we ramp up for the upcoming holiday season. The kids are plotting their Halloween costumes, as parents finalize plans for Thanksgiving and the Christmas season. October is also National Bullying Prevention Month, therefore we will be discussing various aspects of bullying over the next five weeks.

In his paper Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Nick Haslam discusses how concepts like bullying have been expanded to “encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.” They are extended outward to include new phenomena and downward to include less extreme phenomena. Potential benefits of such expansion include recognizing formerly tolerated negative behavior as problematic, and increased sensitivity to others suffering or maltreatment. The cost of this creep, however, may very well create more problems than it fixes.

Some Bullies tease, but not all teasing is bullying.

Teasing is one of the casualties in the ever-expanding definition of Bullying. The two are often used synonymously in the media and much of the available “anti-bully” literature. This semantic overlap has led to much confusion and mis-information for parents. It is also a headache for teachers and school administrators. As they work to establish legally mandated “learning environments free from distractions,” they create so-called zero-tolerance policies regarding bullying. In other words, NO TEASING ALLOWED.

There is an extensive body of academic literature studying the many cultural facets of teasing and it’s beneficial role in human communication. As explained by Kruger, Gordon, and Kuban (2006),

“To be sure, some teasing is designed with the sole purpose of hurting, humiliating, or harassing the target of the tease. But often, individuals tease to flirt, socialize, play, enhance social bonds, teach, entertain (themselves, the target, or an audience), or to express affiliation, affection, and even love (p. 412).”

In The Good, the Bad, and the Borderline: Separating Teasing from Bullying (2009), Mills and Carwile thoroughly discuss teasing, it’s relationship to bullying, and it’s value as a communicative device. While teasing can be used by bullies in a negative, aggressive manner, teasing also plays a very beneficial roll in our interpersonal interactions.

Teasing is very nuanced, utilizing humor, innuendo, sarcasm, and irony to indirectly communicate the intended message. Even as adults we oftentimes misinterpret the intent of someone’s witty or sarcastic quips. How can our children grow into strong, high-functioning adults, if they aren’t given the opportunity to develop this skill?

Mills and Carwile provide the Teasing Totter model to help those who would try to teach children to discern between the varying degrees of appropriate, healthy teasing. For a more in-depth look click here.

Teasingtotter

Rather than eliminating all forms of teasing in a misguided attempt of protecting our children, as parents and educators we need to do the hard work of distinguishing between the positive, beneficial forms and the negative. We need to allow children the opportunity to fine-tune these skills themselves, and help guide them through the sometimes murky waters of human communication. This understanding will make them stronger, more resilient, and more safe, enabling them to more effectively discern healthy human interaction from the threat of a bully. Otherwise, we’re just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

See you on the mat.

image credit: stopbullying.gov


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

Kruger, J., Gordon, C., & Kuban, J. (2006). Intentions in teasing: When ‘‘just kidding’’ just isn’t good enough. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 412􏰀425.

Mills, C. B. (2009, April). Communication Education. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Carol_Bishop_Mills/publication/263612607_The_Good_the_Bad_and_the_Borderline_Separating_Teasing_from_Bullying/links/58a72725a6fdcc0e078ae9c7/The-Good-the-Bad-and-the-Borderline-Separating-Teasing-from-Bullying.pdf