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

 

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The concepts of the bully, the victim/targetand 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.
  5. 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