By Diane Swiatek, Founder and Director of Banbury Crossroads School
Mental health might seem to be a very self-centered goal, since it may only be achieved if individuals take care of themselves, and particularly since the only person individuals have any semblance of control over is themselves. However, individuals cannot ONLY take care of themselves, because our social nature gives us responsibilities towards others; we need to foster connection and community. Fundamentally, mentally healthy people are needed in society to ensure that civility, compassion and respect define the moral imperatives underlying our democratic laws and conventions, and, most importantly, to live congruently through civil, compassionate and respectful social interactions. So, individuals who achieve mental health become healthy for the group, and the goal becomes not self-centered at all.
However, mental health is not easily achieved by everyone, nor is it a constant state within generally healthy individuals. We all know people who are failing in their attempts to achieve mental health, and the tremendous, long-range costs to society from these failures. For instance, over the past year, we have become aware of ongoing gross violations of the moral connections we purportedly value, in instances like the sexual abuse perpetrated at St. Michael’s College in Eastern Canada, and the mass shootings of young people south of the border. When institutions of learning become unsafe places for the very youth they are attempting to nurture, due to dangers like egregious bullying and hazing through to the ultimate violation of murder, we need to seriously change our cultural attitudes toward power and control. Although a bullying temperament and personality have been shown to have a genetic basis, and although the biological causation and results of behaviour are potent, the environment these particularly-affected people experience may influence how they ultimately behave. When at-risk individuals are also put in situations wherein they have little power over their life experience, the combination of nature-nurture can be incendiary. We may have no control over genetics, but we do have control over the environments we create within our schools and homes, and within the culture at large. By design, we can empower ourselves to be proactive in our philosophical mandates, in the policies we make, and in their implementation. We can also be protective bystanders when bullying slips in insidiously.
We are confronting a long-standing problem, though, much longer historically than we may imagine. Consider the following quote from one of Charles Dickens’ masterpieces, Great Expectations:
“The Educational scheme or Course established by Mr. Wopsle’s great aunt may be resolved into the following synopsis. The pupils ate apples and put straws down one another’s backs, until Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt collected her energies, and made an indiscriminate totter at them with a birch-rod. After receiving the charge with every mark of derision, the pupils formed in line and buzzingly passed a ragged book from hand to hand. The book had an alphabet in it, some figures and tables, and a little spelling—that is to say, it had had once. As soon as this volume began to circulate, Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt fell into a state of coma; arising either from sleep or a rheumatic paroxysm. The pupils then entered among themselves upon a competitive examination on the subject of Boots, with the view of ascertaining who could tread the hardest upon whose toes. This mental exercise lasted until Biddy made a rush at them and distributed three defaced Bibles (shaped as if they had been unskilfully cut off the chump-end of something), more illegibly printed at the best than any curiosities of literature I have since met with, speckled all over with ironmould, and having various specimens of the insect world smashed between their leaves. This part of the Course was usually lightened by several single combats between Biddy and refractory students. When the fights were over, Biddy gave out the number of a page, and then we all read aloud what we could—or what we couldn’t—in a frightful chorus; Biddy leading with a high shrill monotonous voice, and none of us having the least notion of, or reverence for, what we were reading about. When this horrible din had lasted a certain time, it mechanically awoke Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt, who staggered at a boy fortuitously, and pulled his ears. This was understood to terminate the Course for the evening, and we emerged into the air with shrieks of intellectual victory1”
I have treated you to this fragment of a literary masterpiece in order to present a historical view of methods employed by misguided and neglectful educators to establish good behaviour and produce a modicum of learning in children during a bygone era. It would appear that bullies have existed in the adult format just as often as in the child format, and that the two are somehow related! The footnote to this passage describing an “evening school” states that, “‘By general consent, Dame-schools were faulty in the extreme. Many were something like this one that Pip attended…. For every detail of this hilarious account one can provide confirming footnotes from Reports on elementary education, from the Manchester Statistical Society’s in 1834-5 to the Newcastle Commission’s in 1859.’2”
I am intrigued with this startling portrayal of bullying perpetrated both by and upon children in the last century. It deals with issues just as vividly relevant today—that being the nature of childhood perceptions of and responses to the prevailing social scheme, and the nature of adult perceptions of and interventions in the resulting social struggles created by youth. The passage quoted above highlights one element first and foremost—that children seem to have similar responses to social difficulties in every era. We must accept the reality that children are physically oriented. Boisterous and physically expressive interchanges such as this amongst children have been recorded throughout history. During my grandmother’s school days, boys would dip girls’ pigtails in the inkwells or snatch their hats. During my father’s day, young pugnacious boys would deliver fisticuffs to each other within a circle of curious onlookers in a dusty field, to establish status and respect. This physicality in conflict situations was not merely a boy-girl issue, as any reader of Tom Brown’s School Days would discover. In that tale, boys followed a custom of belittlement and abuse of younger boys by older boys in an English boarding school. The St. Michael’s incidents indicate behaviour even worse by the degree of humiliation and the spread of public knowledge. Gender does not preclude abuse occurring between children, as girls may dish out unrivalled emotional torture. Whereas boys typically deliver physical punishment to their peers, girls tend to deliver cruelty through body language and through words both written, spoken and electronically disbursed.
Why does this happen? What can we adults do to respond to such events? Can we prevent bullying? If so, how? These are the topics of my mental search today, and I sincerely hope that the result will provide some glimmers of enlightenment and ideas for coping with these problems. I invite you to join me as I seek to understand the causes of, and remedies for, this most complex of behaviours. Unfortunately, it is not simple at all. There may be some chicken-and-egg connections here, and points of intervention may be difficult to determine. The most complicating factor of all is that aggression cannot be dissected, comprehended, or resolved easily. The topic involves many components—the historical perspective that describes ancient cultural directives and habits, the biological and psychological drives that predispose, produce and inhibit physical force, and the societal influences derived from the multidimensional interactions of groups of adults and children. I wish to break through the temptation to search for a quick and easy, all-purpose remedy, since there is no such thing. Rather, I seek to examine the complex interrelations of the factors that produce intimidation by aggressors, in order to find ways of preventing bullies from appearing in the first place…if that is even possible. Then, I intend to discover how to protect myself and those around me from the aggressive behaviour of bullies who were created outside my circle of influence. I also want to share these ideas so that my intellectual journey is profitable for others.
So, I begin at the beginning…with young children, newly into the world, pre-adolescent youth. Toddlers and young children are innocent, and primarily reactors to their environment. I believe that children get themselves into scrapes mainly through unavoidable self-centeredness. Their overweening focus on their inner state leads them to attempt at all times to fulfill their own needs only. Still, in a tiny child, egotism is developmentally appropriate, since it is tied to a strong instinct for survival. Who better knows ourselves than ourselves? If we do not look out for our own needs, who will? This impetus toward self-satisfaction is not negative—it is actually crucial for growth into adulthood. During the growth process, it usually happens that adult caregivers confirm the supportive idea that children are, indeed, important, and, as well, they teach these children that so is everyone else. This is the balance children lack, and it must be taught.
Even though the fulfillment of their own needs is paramount, I do not believe that young children premeditatedly plan devious and hateful schemes to devour the spirit of their peers. It has been observed that ‘children can be cruel’, but I think that this term applied to average children is a misnomer. True cruelty in children would result mainly from two causes. One of these would arise from their adaptations to bizarre environmental influences that threaten their survival, such as abuse by significant caregivers or disastrous parenting full of hatred and cruelty. The other would be from genetic or biological sources, from dysfunctional brain development, to personalities or temperaments that ultimately develop into personality disorders, psychopathy or sociopathy. All of these disorders involve a lack of empathy, and a lack of empathy is at the root of much social pain, since empathy is necessary for human evolution and coexistence. However, conditions that result in the inability to feel or express empathy are rare. So, for the majority of children, we need not view their lapses in kindness as heartless cruelty. Certainly, with our refined experience and ability to use social graces, we will notice when the spoken jibes of children toward their weaker or disadvantaged acquaintances are vicious and unfair, and do indeed hurt the targeted ones.
However, it seems to me that the young children who hurl these insults do so thoughtlessly, and not out of malice. Rather, their heedless behaviour is an overly spontaneous response to outside stimuli, including their own familial anguish. They are more reactive than proactive. So, herein lies the conundrum—one of the main descriptors of children is their spontaneity. This produces both their greatest joy and their greatest pain. Spontaneity is the immediate and unrestrained emotional response by a fully involved participant in a life experience. The positive aspect of spontaneity is that, because it arises in the here-and-now, hooking individuals into their present moments, it becomes crucial to all accomplishment, because the present is the only time available to us that is malleable. The past is gone. The future is only possibility—and it rarely delivers exactly what we expect of it. So, to be able to follow that excellent advice, “Carpe Diem,” one must be willing to be spontaneous.
However, when young children experience this emotional spontaneity without the benefit of intellectual self-restriction, it can create unmitigated havoc, and this is the seed of most childhood social problems. Due to their lack of experience, they underestimate the consequences of their behaviour upon others, and they have few options up their sleeve to try out when difficulties arise. These factors create interactional difficulties, so they must also put up with learning humility and effective means of showing remorse and atonement. This is the reason for much of adults’ input to children’s behaviour: they must explain the consequences that do naturally appear, they must explain the hurt that their actions have produced in others, and insist upon signs of remorse and assurances of future reparation. Beyond these responses to past troublesome deeds, adults must guide their children in discovering alternate options for future responses in similar situations that could result in more helpful consequences. This is how learning happens for children, in relevant, moment-by-moment replays of their lived experience by wise mentors.
Adults need to be patient with children, as they learn social concepts that we already know. We also need to encourage their free play, as they examine the structure and workings of the physical world, in minute and repetitive detail. Young children’s bodies provide them with immediate feedback through touch, smell, sound, taste and sight that, in turn, provide them with a sense of connectedness with their concrete environment. They need to explore and gather information through their bodies, and to express information with their bodies. Their emotions of joy and affection are clear when they cuddle, hug and share kisses, and when they sit on laps, hold hands, and grab parents’ knees. We expect and enjoy physical signs of their affection—but we do not enjoy their physical signs of anger. This is understandable, since anger is never pleasant to receive. Nevertheless, any adult who relates in a meaningful fashion to children must acknowledge that it is difficult for them to resist the temptation to respond physically when upset. Our task is to help our youth to grow beyond this limitation. We can value the physical nature and spontaneity of youth, yet still urge the growth of self-restraint in order to create the balance necessary for mutual respect.
We can acknowledge their anger, but not allow them to be mean, by directing them to physically expressive activities that expend this energy without detrimental effects upon others. There are many creative solutions that provide physical release, from sprinting around the block or swimming, to wailing at a tree in a park. Encouraging children to speak about their feelings and to express them through art, is also incredibly powerful, because this self-expression gives them a vocabulary to describe their inner experience. In addition, the resulting conversation just might lead them to recognize the unexpected positive results of the troubling experience. This has been identified as one strategy for dealing with pain, and it works for adults as well as its does for children.
In addition, slowly, they must learn to problem-solve on the spur of the moment, and to identify alternative means of responding to their rising emotion. As children grow and mature into adulthood, spontaneity becomes tempered with the forethought that arises from experience, and eventually with the understanding of the value of altruism. Then, spontaneity will lose its negative potential, and instead will become unreservedly beneficial. As in most aspects of life, we must seek balance. Therefore, spontaneity, as is true for liberty, can only exist as a positive force if it takes into account the effects of one’s behaviour on other people. Human survival depends on more than individual autonomy. We have been social creatures for eons, and our survival has always required the benevolence and acceptance of our fellow humans, in order for us to play interconnected roles in our particular culture, whatever that may be. This further requirement of social approval ultimately leads us to abandon some of our own selfish need-satisfaction, in order to care for the fulfillment of others’ needs. The development of mutual respect and self-responsibility is crucial in the process of creating interdependent and stable social groups, and it contributes to effective trade and collective action between groups.
This is where empathy comes in as a necessary ingredient for the creation of stable social groups wherein spontaneity is balanced and responsive. We must be patient with children as they develop the ability to empathize with others, but we need not fear about empathy’s ultimate appearance. Empathic responses have been observed even in babies as they encounter other babies crying around them. Research has been done on the origins and progression of an empathetic response in infancy. In June 2013, Yasuhiro Kanakogi and his colleagues from Kyoto University and Toyohashi University of Technology published a study entitled, “Rudimentary Sympathy in Preverbal Infants: Preference for Others in Distress”. They found that 10-month-olds, when viewing animated sequences, exhibit sympathetic responses, shown by their preference for the victim over the aggressor or a neutral party. This indicated that even at this young age, babies were not only able to evaluate the roles of victims and aggressors in interactions, but that they also show rudimentary sympathy towards others in distress. The researchers hypothesized that this simple preference may act as a foundation for empathetic behaviour as children grow.
Empathy evolves over time through the healthy functioning of mirror neurons. Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese and their colleagues in Italy discovered mirror neurons in the pre-frontal lobes of the brain among motor command neurons that orchestrate a sequence of muscle twitches that allow people to do particular actions. A subset of these neurons also fires when we simply watch another person do exactly the same action, so these neurons are simulating a theory about others’ minds and intentions. So, having a ‘theory of mind’ means the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. V. S. Ramachandran has championed the idea that mirror neurons are important for social interaction, since they are involved in affective experiences, not just physical actions. Indeed, dysfunctions in mirror neurons are implicated in the lack of empathy found in people with autism or personality disorders. Empathy is also affected by hormones such as oxytocin that act as a neurotransmitter in the brain influencing social interaction. There is always a neurological aspect to behaviour, much of which we are still discovering.
The ability to make intellectual predictions of consequences, to engage in forethought, is also associated with checking risky spontaneous action, disarming the potency of the emotional storm, and leading to self-control and social responsiveness. And yet, the reality is that the pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until people are around 25 years old. This means that adult mentors need to fill in the gaps with the philosophical message that other people matter as much as we do, individually. Eventually, children grow more and more proficient in balancing their wishes with those of others. This adult guidance can only proceed from our noblest aspirations for peace and for a harmonious culture that values human dignity and freedom. This requires a most advanced human understanding that individual happiness and fulfillment depends upon the reciprocal happiness and fulfillment of others—that mutual respect is mandatory for harmonious social relations.
In many times and places, adults have not related to the children in their lives in such an enlightened fashion. Most adults would agree that the narrow self-centeredness of childhood must be abandoned and that the needs of others (especially of those particular adults!) must be accommodated. Nevertheless, the methods that parents and other adults in authority over children use in their attempt to accomplish this transformation make a world of difference to the learning that results. The passage in Great Expectations describes a method at the extreme end of a rather common misconception that the only thing children understand is a physical reprimand. Now, this is very interesting, especially as I have just been exploring how physical children are. However, I think that the reason this misconception arose was due to another ancient but troubling adult means of dealing with aggression and distrust—tit-for-tat retaliation.
We all have heard of adults down through the ages conducting family feuds on the small scale, right through to wars on the large scale. Adults have carried out these skirmishes, not children. This is a little discouraging, because adulthood ought to evidence growth beyond the selfishness of childhood. Nevertheless, when adults have behaved like this, they have been responding from their earliest physical impulses, that ‘might is right’. This law of the jungle may have provided predictability in early and primitive cultures. Humanity was more dependent upon the enormous power of their physical environment. For thousands of years, people were limited to accepting and merely reacting to this power of nature when creating their creature comforts of housing, clothing, art, recreation and food preparation. They had not yet started to exert much proactive control over it. Lives were short, and there was not much time for learning culturally-retained knowledge, or for making significant cultural advancements in a single generation. Therefore, the strength of natural forces—weather, geography, earthquakes, fire, volcanic eruptions, seasonal changes—as well as the physical and moral strength of leaders, together worked to establish the patterns of behaviour necessary for survival as a group. Within the group, members would have to show deference and helpfulness in order to preserve peacefulness and longevity. Interactions between groups did not always demand the same cooperative behaviours, since loyalties were clearly assigned to specific groups. If interactions advanced the comfort and survival of each group, such as those surrounding trade or comradeship, the relationships were positive. However, if the interactions limited or reduced the comfort or survival of the group, such as territorial disputes, then relationships deteriorated, and the problems were dealt with in a physical manner. War was simply a demonstration of strength and resolve to end conflict, when diplomacy and creative problem-solving broke down. When sticks and stones were the weapons of choice, and when death, or at least wholesale slaughter, was rare, these wars were not overly damaging to any group. However, as technology increased, the resolution of border disputes, or other affronts to a nation’s dignity, through the physical means of war became increasingly problematic.
War may seem an extreme topic to examine when we are discussing the bullying of, and by, children; however, they are related. They are related in spirit. An adult population that glorifies war thereby automatically glorifies resolving problems through physical means, and this retaliatory spirit spills all over their relationships with children. Children are affected by the values of their parents and other significant adults regarding physical force. We must always remember that adult influence is enormous upon children. Let us look at Great Expectations again. The children in that evening school also spent time at home, where their experiences were sometimes less than favorable. Look at the following passage regarding Pip’s inquisition upon returning from Miss Havisham’s house:
“When I reached home, my sister was very curious to know all about Miss Havisham’s, and asked a number of questions. And I soon found myself getting heavily bumped from behind in the nape of the neck and the small of the back, and having my face ignominiously shoved against the kitchen wall, because I did not answer those questions at sufficient length. If a dread of not being understood be hidden in the breasts of other young people to anything like the extent to which it used to be hidden in mine—which I consider probable, as I have no particular reason to suspect myself of having been a monstrosity—it is the key to many reservations. I felt convinced that if I described Miss Havisham’s as my eyes had seen it, I should not be understood. Not only that, but I felt convinced that Miss Havisham too would not be understood; and although she was perfectly incomprehensible to me, I entertained an impression that there would be something coarse and treacherous in my dragging her as she really was (to say nothing of Miss Estella) before the contemplation of Mrs. Joe. Consequently, I said as little as I could, and had my face shoved against the kitchen wall. The worst of it was that that bullying old Pumblechook, preyed upon by a devouring curiosity to be informed of all I had seen and heard, came gaping over in his chaise-cart at tea time, to have the details divulged to him. And the mere sight of the torment, with his fishy eyes and mouth open, his sandy hair inquisitively on end…made me vicious in my reticence…. Whitewash on the forehead hardens the brain into a state of obstinacy perhaps.”3
When I consider the long-term effects of such mentorship of children, I am not surprised in the least that the children in that evening school were tromping on each other’s toes and sticking straw down each other’s backs. I am also not surprised that they showed so little reverence for, or interest in, the material presented to them by the teacher, who herself was hardly an enthusiastically involved participant in their lives. The students were derisive because the adults were unreasonable. The passage is hilarious simply because it is so outlandishly unkind and foolishly misunderstanding of children. Certainly, children love roughhousing, and they find ways of entertaining themselves when they are bored. However, the intellectual and emotional input of these particular adults was non-existent. If children are to be persuaded that moral behaviour is best, and that respect is rewarding, then they must receive it first.
Therefore, to truly prevent the creation of bullies, adults must not model aggression. They must model kindness and graciousness, as well as problem resolution in a win-win manner. Fortunately, it just so happens that we live in a democracy. This is an enlightened concept to base a culture upon. It depends on mutual agreements upheld through honouring the spoken and written word. Within our borders, we expect to resolve complaints through oral discussions, written submissions, labor relations committees, ombudsmen, and courts of law. We also take active roles in designing our own rules and laws by minor organizations’ committees, as well as by city, provincial, and federal legislative bodies. This is a culture of universally-accepted expectations regarding individual rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. Those of us who especially value these aspects of our civil society may look upon other cultures as being barbaric, because they still rely on revolutions, on ethnic cleansing, or on establishing totalitarian regimes based on fear, as a modus operandi. Life in such places has little comfort, no security, and no dignity. Such cultures seem retrograde. We have much to appreciate, and much to feel proud of, in our participation within a peaceful democracy. Inherent in our social system are culturally supportive ideals for promoting peace, and we should focus on these ideals in our discussions with youth.
We must also be aware that our inner convictions regarding acceptable means of problem solving necessarily influence our daily actions. It is wise of us to examine these old inner beliefs, and to reevaluate their applicability in our lives now. Our spirit must acknowledge the superiority of peaceful negotiation over aggression and physical retaliation. In the book, Getting Together: Building Relationships As We Negotiate, by Roger Fisher and Scott Brown, of the Harvard Negotiation Project, there is an appendix entitled, “A Note on ‘Tit-for-Tat’”. This is the most vivid explanation I have discovered on the futility of pursuing a course of retaliation in response to a problem. If we adults understand this concept, then we will behave accordingly toward others, including our children, and through this role-modelling and general prevailing attitude, we will wield significant influence. This is the heart of the power that parents and other child leaders have over children’s behaviour—the influence of role model and response.
Punishment from adults teaches children that the use of power is fine, but only if the person wielding it is powerful enough. The cartoon of the father spanking his son and saying, “How many times have I told you not to hit your sister?” is ironically illustrative of the influence parents have over their children’s behaviour among their peers. On the other hand, if children are treated consistently with gentle respect, with interested involvement, with tender affection, understanding and caring, then they will know how to do so with others. Mind you, they will still have their moments of frustration, and their struggles with the occasional postponement of need gratification. They also have to wrestle with insecurity arising from a yet-undeveloped sense of accomplishment and self-value. We must help them to be patient with these trials, but we cannot prevent them, because they are developmental. We must not lose patience with their stumbling steps on their journey to selfhood. It is only with age and appropriate intellectual input that they will overcome these barriers to smooth social functioning. Usually around the ages of 7 to 9, children begin to show more adeptness at resolving problematic issues. They start to realize that they must listen to the complaints others have about their behaviour, and that they need to respond to those complaints. They begin to remember to use words to create understanding, instead of fists or other body parts to create punishment. They may remember after they have already created a bit of a scuffle, but it is a beginning. Rome was not built in a day, and children do not become adults in a day. Growing up is a process of adopting mature behaviours one at a time, fitfully at the beginning, but gaining momentum as they experience success.
Those of us in a position of influence over children have an obligation to assist children in this learning process. I reiterate that the spirit with which we approach children is the single most important element of our interactions, since our spirit is revealed through a myriad of body language signals that invade our verbal communications. We must try to become aware of our hidden agendas. If our beliefs are that the other person is unworthy of respect or incapable of solving problems, or that we are the only repositories of reasonable solutions, then this overly responsible and basically distrustful attitude will pervade and sabotage any attempt we make to communicate effectively. When any person comes to us with a problem that they “own”, and we are merely a consultant, it is more helpful for us to realize that each person who encounters a problem is truly the most qualified to understand the problem, and to choose a suitable solution. Only those specific individuals know their own roles in the problem, as long as they are courageous enough to admit them. They also know their strengths and weaknesses that must be taken into account. It may happen that a person may be misinterpreting information or under- or over-estimating the potential dangers within a situation. However, in these cases it is more important than ever that people be given the opportunity to examine in depth the relevant factors, and to discover the flaws in their own reasoning. This process of detecting discrepancies in the presented facts, of learning to reason logically, and of juxtaposing conflicting opinions, is assisted by the presence of another person, who engages in the reasoning process as a listener, a reflector of ideas, and, if asked, a contributor of possibilities and insight. Parents and teachers do have considerable influence within such a mentoring relationship. Their emotional support alone conveys the concept that problems are meant to be solved, and that the young person has the ability and the power to do so. Such experiences, and such expectations have a powerful impact on a child’s developing sense of self.
So, if bullying arises because it seems to empower both the perpetrators and the bystanders, then it seems obvious that they feel powerless otherwise. Therefore, giving kids power in schools and in homes seems obvious as one solution. According to Dr. John C. Friel and Linda D. Olund Friel in The Power and Grace between Nasty or Nice, power is the capacity to influence, being the energy of life, literally and figuratively, to naturally lead, to make things happen, and to affect the world. Control is the reciprocal to power, in its capacity to restrain or regulate influence. They explain that it is the “roundedness of life, recognized in the inevitable limitations on everything that exists.” Power and control are interactive concepts that can be understood best in relation to each other, as in power/control. Young people can be given both power and control to devise appropriate solutions to their personal problems, to schedule their classes, to participate in the design of assignments, to create projects based on their interests, and to organize their personal space and events. At these times, adults must step back and allow children to devise options, analyze the possibilities and make decisions. At those times, mentors in schools and homes assume the role of problem-solving facilitators, and do not take over-responsibility for the removal of young people’s boredom or their pain. Youth are responsible for their own feelings and behaviour, and for the hurt they cause in others. Adults play an enormous role in helping young people to sort through their messes afterwards, and in engaging in the process of proactively planning future experiences.
So, this is where we can identify a clear method of preventing bullying in a deep and pervasive manner: we present the most effective assistance to children when we consistently exhibit the proper extent of our responsibility—responsibility over ourselves. We must attempt to control ourselves, not them. We must focus on being accountable for our own actions. This is easier to accept when we realize the immense empowerment we gain through such accountability. There is tremendous benefit to be derived from behaving in an unconditionally constructive manner—no matter what the behaviour of the other person. When we believe our own options of response to be dictated by the actions of others (for example, “You drive me crazy!”) then we are slaves to the decisions of others, and we must wait for them to change before we will get any relief. However, when we realize that our reactions are our own choices, and that we have many of them, then we are free to have control over ourselves. In addition, when we truly understand that we do indeed have control over our own lives, then we do not need to grasp at controlling other people’s lives. Through focussing on our own willingness to grow and change, non-resentfully, we can relax and enjoy the opportunities presented to us by experiences both positive and negative. Life is a tapestry of multitudinous experiences, and we learn from all of them. This attitude of respect and appreciation we can pass on to our children. It is important to acknowledge, though, that acceptance of limitations does not mean that we condone those limitations. If we detect honest remorse, and the desire to make amends, we can forgive another’s hurting us, but we can also expect them to work on their problems so that they will stop the hurt. In addition, even when we use assertiveness to be reasonable, rational and clear, it will not work with unreasonable, highly manipulative or damaged people. It only works reasonably well with reasonable people. The learning we gain, in other words, may not be that we always receive what we most desire: it may, instead, be that we must move away from the source of our pain. Either way, we will inspire our children to respond to life in a mentally healthy manner. This is much more effective than attempting to badger them into adopting our beliefs or our commands. Our children are not miniature versions of ourselves. They have their own destinies.
If children could really come to understand the power that they actually possess over their own lives, and the lack of power that they actually possess over other people’s lives, then they would not become bullies. If they had experienced secure attachment to their caregivers in early childhood, if they felt and expressed empathy and compassion toward others, if they understood the necessity for mutual respect within any group of people, then they would not become bullies. Beyond genetic predispositions to aggression, unresolved control issues are at the heart of bullying, and it is in the realm of problem solving that most bullying arises. Bullying is the negative attempt to solve problems through forcing the other party into acquiescence with the bully’s point of view. We see here once again the self-centeredness of early childhood that has not disappeared with age. Something has been missing from the development of these bullying children that has prevented them from abandoning their original protective stance toward the world. I suspect that love and respect have been missing, and perhaps even more so—the insistence that problems involving other people’s needs need to be solved in a win-win manner. It bears mentioning that “win-win” does not mean that one person gets what they want, while the others somehow figure out how to put up with that fulfilled desire. It means that each side is satisfied enough with the final decision, in which both sides’ needs are addressed. All children need unconditional love—acceptance and appreciation that transcends current behaviour. All children also need to understand that everyone’s needs matter and that reciprocity is crucial in developing relationships. Receiving such experience of mutual respect leads to the development of trust, and thence to empathy and trustworthiness. It also prevents the attitude that narcissistic responses are acceptable. Therefore, our greatest power for preventing the creation of bullies is in cherishing our children, in treating them with kindness, and in expecting kindness and consideration in return. Kindness disarms anger and resentment. Being kind to our youth also involves the attempt to understand them and intervene in addressing their needs whenever possible, so they will not feel despair, isolation, self-protectiveness or hopelessness. Through effective listening, caring adults can help children to develop self-comprehension. As well, we can assist our youth to develop the negotiation strategies they need to find mutually-acceptable solutions to conflicts. Through learning effective communication skills, our young people will be able to create strands of understanding and positive social connections that bridge the gap between themselves and others. This in turn will produce the optimism and personal power necessary to acknowledge that they are capable of resolving their own problems and issues peacefully, and without frustration or aggression.
We adults are the leaders in the quest for positive communication. Our young people will learn from us as their primary role models. We must understand clearly that we are only ready to learn effective techniques of communication and negotiation once we have wholeheartedly accepted peaceful and considerate attitudes towards others and towards ourselves. Then and only then will we be able to use new strategies to help us in our attempts to reach out to others. There are many sources of information for us as parents and educators that illustrate appropriate means of communicating ideas and resolving problems. One significant author on these topics is Dr. Thomas Gordon. He based much of his life’s work on the writings of Dr. Carl Rogers, who spearheaded the client-centered therapy movement. Dr. Thomas Gordon wrote several enlightening books: Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), and Discipline That Works: Promoting Self-Discipline in Children are two of his best. The spirit of benevolence that is so crucial to the use of any verbal communication skills is demonstrated by the avoidance of “roadblocks to communication”, such as ordering, threatening, moralizing, lecturing, judging, praising, name-calling, analyzing, reassuring, interrogating and distracting. Conversely, communication facilitators are strategies such as silent and passive listening, acknowledgement responses, invitations to talk and active listening with feedback.
What is interesting about perusing these ideas is that some of the items under “roadblocks” we tend to think of as positive interventions, and some of the items listed under “facilitators” we generally underestimate as being of value. The point is that when children have a problem, they need first and foremost, understanding. In order to truly understand, adults must listen—really listen. The list of roadblocks includes such ‘harmless’ items as giving logical arguments or advising, because they are occurring during the initial stages of exploration of the problem. They are occurring during a time that the adult ought to be listening, instead of responding. Other items, such as “sarcasm” are more clear roadblocks, since sarcasm is never productive under any circumstances. Sarcasm by definition includes antagonism and disrespect. To truly understand a child’s problems, it is necessary for the adult to be quiet while the child explains, and then, to somehow convey to the child that the message has been received. This process of sending and receiving messages can only work if the sender feels comfortable and trusting, and if the receiver is interested and caring. It is important for the adult to have a clear idea about whose problem the problem is. If the problem belongs solely to the child, because it has no concrete impact upon the adult, then the response suitable for the adult is that of helping the child to discover the solution. If the problem is the adult’s, because the behaviour of the child is creating a negative impact upon the adult, then the response called for is different. In this case, the adult must convey these three things: what the specific behaviour is that is causing the problem, how the behaviour impacts on the adult, and how the adult feels about the impact.
Responding open-endedly in this manner allows children to understand the point of view of the person affected by their behaviour. It also allows them, freely and in an unpressured manner, to feel remorse and to apologize, or even to suggest ways to prevent it happening in the future. If, however, the explanation does not result in a positive response, it means that the child’s need to keep on doing the behaviour is greater than their need to please the adult. This is a very important understanding, as it lifts from the adult’s perception the illusion that the child is doing the behaviour purely to annoy the adult. The child is doing it for his or her own reasons separate from any perception or acknowledgment of adult involvement. This then indicates the need for mutual problem solving, much as that engaged in by management-labor relations boards. The needs of both sides need to be determined, and ways need to be sought for the resolution of all needs. Win-win solutions are the only ones acceptable. This authoritative style of parenting or mentoring is helpful, because it emphasizes that reasons are the whole point—may the best reason win—and that everyone counts.
This manner of communication is the opposite of an authoritarian style that emphasizes the parent issuing edicts, either permitting or forbidding the wishes of the child. The reason that the authoritarian style is unhelpful is that it reinforces the idea that only more powerful people can make decisions, and that they make them arbitrarily. This can be very detrimental to young people, because when difficult decisions arise, they may think that no logical or moral reason needs to back it up. Many dangers await teenagers who think this way.
Prevention, then, is the best cure for bullying, both by adults and by children. Prevention of wanton aggression and selfish retaliation is most preferable, since it not only prevents the original bullying, it also prevents the spillover from such outbursts into unexpected directions and upon innocent bystanders. Prevention of the originating problems is the most pleasant means of creating social harmony. The onus for this rests upon the shoulders of parents, teachers, and other adults who interact with children. We must all rise to the challenge by displaying respect, self-love, empathy, optimism, dignity and faith in our ability to solve problems. We teach children through exhibiting who we are—our perceptions of life’s conundrums, our vitality in approaching each fresh day. In reaching others, we must reach ourselves first.
Of course, in focussing on prevention, we are focussing on the “think global, act local” strategy. This is an attempt to be aware of our constant quest for meaning in life, while also being fully involved with each minute detail of our daily experiences. Focussing on prevention of aggression and loveless frustration is the most empowering position to take, since it rests upon our own ability to make decisions regarding the people within our circle of influence. It is really all we can truly do to leave a trail of light behind us.
Outside our circle of influence, other factors are operating, and sometimes we become unwitting victims of others’ evil intentions. This is beyond the extent of our preventative measures. Rather, it is within the realm of reactionary acts. This addresses the question of what we ought to do when confronted by a bully. It is not our responsibility to curb the rise of aggression. It already has arisen. It is now only our responsibility to respect ourselves and our right to personal safety. What ought we to do? Immediately, I think of the movie, The Karate Kid, wherein the sensei advises the boy, “The best defense—no be there!” Well, what do you know? Prevention is appropriate here after all, but only in terms of preventing harm to ourselves. When people approach us with aggression in their hearts, we have a right to demand respect and personal safety, or alternately, to leave the provocative situation. This demand is essentially a message of “NO! You have no right to hurt me!” This message will be conveyed differently by different personalities, but the vehemence is the crucial element. It may be comforting to realize that a person who really means “NO!” will be heard. We must be willing to display such a message when it is appropriate, and we can encourage our children to stand up to aggressors as well. Words spoken in a firm voice can be more effective than an aggressive retaliation. Aggression is always suggestive of lack of self-control. The person who can respond verbally gains social stature, because self-control is evident. We display dignity when we can handle incidents with words, rather than with fists. This is one way to gain self-possession and confidence.
We do have cultural support for adopting peacefulness as a way of being. However, we will always encounter limits to our power of influence. Across the western world, the prevailing dream of pursuing happiness through individual liberty has created more than the entrepreneurial spirit and economic differences between people. The pursuit of freedom has pervasive consequences in our society, and it provides an appropriate and logical way to handle the many variations between people. For not only are individuals free to develop their own unique character and talents, but also, because of differences in personality and philosophy, they naturally create wide variations in the domestic atmosphere within their family homes. We are not in control of so many variables. On the large scale, we are not capable of eradicating all of the bullies on earth.
When dealing with people outside our circle of friends, family and acquaintances, we must primarily take responsibility for our own safety and that of our closest friends and relatives. In practice, dealing with aggression is not a pleasant task, because it means, by definition, that the situation has already gotten out of hand. We must never condone violence or glorify it. When elements within our culture such as adventure movies display aggression gone amuck, we can remember, and remind our children, that these are only fantasies, and that such behaviors in real life would be dealt with quite differently. We live in a participatory democracy, and we may choose to participate directly in the setting of policy regarding the consequences meted out to those individuals who endanger the lives of others. How much we participate is up to us. Even if we do not actually make decisions regarding such issues, we still participate by supporting the decisions of others, of our chosen leaders. Our general attitude seems to be that those who pose a threat to the safety of the group will be taken away from that group in order to protect it. In practice, there are problems with this approach. First, we sometimes do not recognize a threat until after it has erupted. The students who stormed Columbine High in Colorado so many years ago had been an invisible threat because they were ignored. We can try to not ignore hints of trouble. Another problem with isolating perpetrators of aggressive injustices is that sometimes we cannot catch them. The world is very big, and there are many places to hide. Nevertheless, there is consensus that we must try to preserve the general good, the smooth social functioning of the group as a whole. We must continue to support the societal directive of saying “NO!” to adult bullies by insisting that they take responsibility for their hurtful behaviour by removing them from society, or engaging them, whenever possible, in rehabilitation, community service or reconciliation activities. We must avoid retaliation and vindictiveness, and yet never condone violence, because aggression is always dysfunctional, since it causes pain and grief. Therefore, we must find ways to stylize our disagreements, to bring some gentleness to our interactions. Moreover, through our national participation in international organizations, we ought to urge other countries to deal with their citizens respectfully. Canadians can be advocates for human rights, here and everywhere.
Overall, the future belongs to our children. We must equip them for dealing with difficult problems creatively and constructively, with courage and resiliency. In dealing with most problems, and bullies are no exception, we must remind our youth that the proactive prevention of problems is always better than the best cure.