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 The bullying of the past has been replaced by a newer, expanded version.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

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