Independent School Magazine recently published an article, “Why Our Approach to Bullying is Bad for Kids,” by Susan Porter. Porter set out to investigate the apparent surge in bullying among children, as reported in multiple media. What she learned was that the incidence of bullying had not increased so much as the definition of bullying had changed and expanded.
Bullying used to mean acts of physical harassment between children, beating up a smaller child or repeated hate speech. Now bullying includes all sorts of behaviors, including social exclusion, name-calling, teasing, and generally being unfriendly. Also the negative outcomes of bullying have been expanded from school phobia and depression to include feeling upset or being sad. Porter learned in her research that bullying now means any of the “routine” acts of selfishness, meanness, teasing, and other social misfires that characterize childhood and adolescence.
What is troubling to Susan Porter (and to me) is that what used to be normal childhood behaviors are now seen as pathological and dangerous. Adults are creating unrealistic guidelines for children’s behaviors in an effort to try to prevent all children from feeling any pain or discomfort from unsuccessful social interactions. Like many other aspects of our lives, adults seem to be trying to create a construct for children that, in the end, inhibits a child’s ability to learn from mistakes and to develop resilience in the face of adversity.
Porter believes that using the label “bully” creates a fixed mindset that speaks to a child’s character rather than the child’s behavior. When we label a child a “bully” or a “victim”, not only do adults then tend to view these children in that context, children themselves, who are very concrete, see themselves through the lens of the label, often to their detriment. Porter also argues that when we embrace this fixed mindset, it lets everyone off the hook of doing the difficult work of helping children to truly change behavior, develop compassion and empathy, and to learn how to face adversity and develop resilience, all of which take time and patience. The adults end up not helping children to grow, and these situations are exacerbated by the divisiveness it can cause between parents and between parents and the school.
Porter recommends abandoning the rhetoric that has overtaken this issue and investing our energies in understanding normal childhood development and in developing policies and programs that foster a growth mindset.
This article resonated with me, as I have long held that the use of the terms “bully” and “victim” has run completely amok. All too often, today’s adults have lost perspective, and through their reactions escalate situations well beyond the actual event itself. Our unrealistic desire to protect our children from any and all adversity, failure or discomfort is having the completely opposite result.
It is time for parents and educators to help children reclaim normal childhood development, including learning to cope with and conquer adversity, conflict and failure, along with celebrating successes. We need to refocus and do a much better job in distinguishing what is true bullying, which tends to be rather rare, and what is typical, though still unacceptable, inappropriate social interactions between children. We then need to be prepared to do the hard work of helping children to grow emotionally and socially, which takes time, effort and patience. This is certainly our commitment at Hillel.
Susan Porter’s book, Bully Nation: Why America’s Approach to Bullying is Bad for Everyone, will be released in the spring of 2013 and is a must-read for everyone committed to the growth of our children.