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

 

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 media’s hyperbolic use of the term. Sadly, as with so many societal issues, bullying has been no exception. 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.” A quick google search of bullying statistics would lead one to believe our children are under assault in schools rife with bullies. Being highly skeptical of such fear mongering, I  have to question it’s validity.

The hyped-up epidemic of bullying in our schools.

All forms of violent crime in the U.S. have been on the decline since the mid 1990’s, How could it be that within the context of an ever more peaceful society 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, considered the father of bullying research, originally proposed three core elements. Bullying involves aggressive or otherwise negative actions that are directed towards a child by one or more other people, where that behavior 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)

This expansion is quite disconcerting. It conflates a broad range of phenomena, as I discussed here and here, some more problematic than others, and all requiring different responses. This semantical glitch is convoluting the public discourse with well intentioned, but ultimately harmful anti-bully hysteria.

Consider…. While picking up my third grade 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 could be interpreted as bullying behavior. Anybody who knows my daughter understands the absurdity.

Take a deep breath, and relax. If you come away from National Bully Awareness Month with anything, let it be the knowledge that there is no epidemic.

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

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

Sticks and Stones

While teaching English in Daejeon, South Korea, I found myself out late one particular night with a number of students. We were sitting around a Pojangmacha (포장마차), enjoying whatever various Anju (안주) were being served, along with some cheap Soju (소주) and good conversation, when this rather intoxicated fellow sat down next to me, and started intensely telling me what it was he had to say. My Korean skills at that point consisted of asking directions, and ordering food, so his diatribe was all but lost on me. His tone and body language clued me into his intent, but it wasn’t until his friend had taken him away that the students would tell me what he’d been saying. He was trying to insult me, derisively commenting upon all the standard topics á la Junior High: my appearance, my heritage, my mom. His intent was to hurt my feelings and make me mad, but as ill-intentioned as he was, I remained unscathed.

Of course it was easy to dismiss what he was saying; I couldn’t understand a word. Even after I was told what he said, I still was simply amused by his antics. The things people say have zero impact on our well-being; it’s only what we hear that matters. How we receive the message and process it is really what dictates its effect on us.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

As adults most of us are pretty adept at filtering the things people say. We are confident enough to not worry that much in the first place, and smart enough to recognize that the source, the intent, and the setting all play a role in how we accept it. A close friend making a snarky comment about our hair is much different than an acquaintance at work saying the same thing. Still, we all know how hard it can be at times, to not take some people’s words personally.

It is even more challenging for younger people to navigate these waters. Even with the frequently heard, “just kidding,” or “it was only a joke,” often times children’s feelings get hurt. They simply haven’t had the time and experience to develop effective discernment, and thus struggle with the nuance of sarcasm, hypocrisy, humor, and teasing.

One of the greatest tools we can give our children to help them weather this learning period is self confidence.

Being confident in who we are is like being vaccinated against the terrible things that people say.

Training in Brazilian Jiujitsu is a sure-fire way to develop a strong sense of self. As students repeatedly drill their skills and continually put them to the test, the grind makes one physically, mentally, and emotionally tough. Successfully “tapping out,” or submitting training partners with an ever-refining, ever-increasing arsenal builds confidence. Simultaneously, getting tapped out teaches resilience; our ego can take a “loss,” and thrive. Additionally, people who train in this manner are in little need of validation from others, thus what they say carries less weight.

It’s important to note that the most serious forms of teasing are committed by those who wish to build themselves up by tearing others down. Whether they’re seeking attention, or trying to establish their superiority, the perpetrators are looking for a victim. Just like bullies and criminals, they look for easy marks – people who appear unable or unwilling to stand up for themselves. The body language of a jujiteiro/a says, “I am NOT a victim;” it is a subconscious deterrent to predation.

If you want to teach your child how to deal with people teasing them, get them into a jiu jitsu class. They can train BJJ and learn to handle the trash talking with aplomb.

See you on the mat.

photo credit: kT LindSAy