Bully for You

The story of the week for parents and kids seems to be the fate of the kids bullying Phoebe Prince, the teenager who killed herself as the result of aggressive bullying.

There’s a lot of hand wringing going on about this. There lots of people saying that they don’t know how this could happen. There are lots of people shouting for the heads of the school administrators who “let” this happen. Your tax dollars have gone to create a fundamentally well intentioned, if condescending and juvenile, site called Stop Bullying Now.

But it’s all useless and will do nothing to stem what some are calling an epidemic of bullying, though others contest this idea. Statistics can be marshaled for any point of view, but what is truly tragic in this is that everyone is missing the essential point.

In nearly three decades of studying kids, play and cultural influences, I have consistently seen two incontrovertible facts:

  1. Kid culture always mirrors the culture at large. From toy guns to cell phones to the drive to acquire a hot toy, if kids are doing it (however you perceive it), it is being modeled, condoned and supported by the adult culture. This has been true since the beginning of the 20th Century, but has been even truer in the post-World-War II decades.
  2. Money talks. If something is profitable, you’re going to see more of it. Reflecting some kind of quality standard is less relevant than ever. In this fragmented media market, the game is getting people to tune in and pay attention, and the only rule is “whatever it takes.”

So can we really be surprised at what we see as bullying among kids in a culture that condones and lavishly rewards open aggression, hostility, name-calling and the incitement of violence against people with whom they don’t agree? Can we really say that the rhetoric from left and right that is emotional, fact-free and designed to hurt and/or get an emotional reaction isn’t bullying? Of course it is. And Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck are getting very wealthy doing it without being held accountable for what they say. Not to mention members of Congress whose outbursts on both sides of the issue in the recent health care “debate” were nothing more than bluster and bullying. And this is not to excuse the left wing, either. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Rachel Maddow are doing it, too—and being constantly enriched for it. Their tones may be different, but irony and sarcasm can be bullying as well. It is an environment where facts have no currency, only emotion and polarization because that’s what sells. Given that, behavior and speech that is tantamount to bullying has become a staple of the airwaves and blogosphere.

All very well for adults, whom we can assume can both dish it out and take it—and perhaps laugh all the way to the bank.

Yet what this teaches kids is something very different. When we lionize and make fabulously wealthy someone who is bullying, we teach our kids that such behavior is okay. And not just okay but a path to success. When talking heads seek to express power through emotionalism and cruelty and we support it, we teach our children that that is an effective and appropriate way to encounter the world. Since the schoolyard and the peer group is a child’s world, he or she will inevitably use the behaviors that have been modeled and condoned by the adult world in that environment. Tragic as the results can be, it is either blind or cynical to then turn around and blame the kids when they bully in their worlds.

Listen to children in elementary school as I’ve done recently. The virulence with which they either defend or denigrate President Obama, for instance, is almost assuredly not from independent analysis. They are parroting what they hear at home.

Read the college essays of high school students as I’ve done over the past six months, and you’ll see arguments framed on emotion with no basis in fact. (When I point this out, I am told, “Well, my teacher thought it was okay.” Wow.)

Are these all kids? Of course not, but they are indicative of a trend that reflects the culture as a whole. Emotionalism and bullying are running rampant in our country. Why for a moment would be surprised it’s affecting children as well?

The challenge of parenting in 2010 is trying to create a rational world consistent with one’s own values in light of the myriad media and personal influences impacting our lives and those of our children. It can be mind-boggling, and it can’t all be controlled. The parents’ job is to provide consistent context, not just to say what is or isn’t appropriate but to model that behavior as well.

We will not stop bullying among kids until we stop rewarding it among adults. We will not get kids to stop calling one another hurtful and derogatory names until the culture at large stops calling the President, members of Congress or anyone in the public eye hurtful and derogatory names.

While I’m not hopeful that this will happen any time soon because being hateful is making a lot of people rich and garnering tons of attention for many others, like so many things, change starts at home—and it happens one person at a time.

What have you modeled for your kids today? And what will they take from you into their world? It’s a hard question, but it has to be asked.

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