Bullying: Whose kids do such cruel things? Ours

From the Oregonian April 26, 2010

by Dawn Menken

Our children are precious. We adore them, cherish them and provide for them. So how is it that they can be so cruel? We read about bullying and we wonder, whose kids do these things?

The answer is our kids. It’s not other families. Bullying is in our families, too. Shocking headlines about children who commit suicide because they’re tormented by bullies numb us to the everyday hurtful interactions that are precursors to more dangerous behaviors.

Children reflect behavior they learn at home, in school and in the world at large. In fact, children are frequently more free to say things that most adults self-censor. Here’s an earful:

“You have weird hair.”

“You look like a boy.”

“Your food’s disgusting. Hey, look at this gross food Elijah’s eating!”

“You’re so stupid! You ran the wrong way! Ha, ha ha!”

“You’re a baby. Look, Sam’s crying.”

“You throw like a girl.”

“You can’t play. We have enough people.”

“Don’t you think you’re too old for that?”

That’s just a small sample of the seemingly insignificant remarks one hears daily in the schoolyard. Such common put-downs boost the self-esteem of the speaker and create insiders and outsiders. They’re words that seem of little consequence but deeply hurt, words that declare an order of dominance and enforce behavioral norms.

Children clearly get the message that differences won’t be tolerated. They don’t react for fear of being mercilessly teased. They allow others to define them and the norms of what’s culturally acceptable.

Looking at the statements overheard in one hour at recess tells us about the restricted culture children are creating — or re-creating. They learn quickly: There are strict gender roles to adhere to. There are certain ways of dress and appearance that need to be followed. Kids better be smart and cool. Failure and mistakes are huge humiliations. Avoid unfamiliar foods or cultures. Don’t be emotional or express feelings.

Schools and families that foster a culture that truly values the diverse nature of individuals lay the groundwork for bully-free schools and homes. But championing diversity is no simple feat. Many of us who seek a world of equality and diversity miss how we marginalize our inner diversity.

Ask yourself: Are we a family that values rational thought and feels uncomfortable with emotions? Are we aware how our children tease others for their emotional expression? Do we value only excellence and success? Are we aware that when we give children no room to fail they become increasingly impatient and critical of others?

Are we aware how we might inadvertently uphold certain gender attributes, even subtly, in terms of dress, looks, expectations and behaviors? Do we question our children’s one-sidedness and offer alternative views of the world? Do we help our children use their talents for the good of us all or just encourage them to dominate and excel in the world that they feel most comfortable in? Do we allow and encourage a diversity of opinion and thought, as well as feelings and emotional expression in our homes?

When our child is sad or hurt about something, do we validate that feeling and take it seriously? When our child is angry, do we tell him there’s no reason to be angry, or can we understand and appreciate his feeling even though we might not share it? When our child has an opinion, do we challenge it and inadvertently minimize it? When we as parents speak out strongly and are upset with our children, do we encourage them to also give their view even when it might go against us?

Think about this: If our children feel they cannot speak up to us, can we expect them to stand up to a bully?

Dawn Menken of Portland is a psychotherapist and conflict resolution educator. www.dawnmenken.com