Walk as though you’ve been given one brown eye and one blue
Body & Soul…Charles Wright
Bullying is a complicated socio-psychological issue. Bullies have always been among us in one form or another, but with the advent of the internet and the unprecedented prevalence of teenage texting it has reached pandemic, twenty four hour a day, proportions. The heart breaking stories of teen suicides brought on by severe cyber bullying have shocked and wounded us all and served to create a keen cultural awareness of the seriousness of bullying. Many articles have been published on the subject, programs implemented in schools, and anti-bullying laws put in place. Yet, statistics show that these interventions have little effect on day to day bullying in the playgrounds and corridors of our schools.
If aggression is part of human nature, then so is empathy. Bullies are made, not born. Our society, as a whole, needs to take responsibility for having created a culture in which bullying exists in every middle and high school in the country. How do we reinforce the empathetic nature in our children and discourage the aggression in a milieu that justifies violence as entertainment, is fascinated by power, sees mean spiritedness as humor, and glorifies only a certain body type as attractive?
I believe that when home and preschool environments value, teach, and practice kindness a foundation that prevents bullying later in life can be built.
Normal behavior at the preschool level involves constant experimentation on how to get along with others. Although children have an innate desire to make friends they must learn how to do so. Anyone with a toddler knows that basic social skills, such as sharing or waiting for your turn do not come naturally or easily, yet, even very young children enjoy being around their peers and overflow with affection for others. Children learn by imitation, following the lead of parents, teachers, and older siblings. Modeling thoughtful words and actions is extremely important, but there is more-attention needs to be paid to raising a child with a strong sense of self worth. Bullies are able to hold power in an ambiance of hierarchy and fear. Feeling powerless themselves, they prey on those who they sense can be intimidated.
At the earliest stages of a child’s life, there should be a concerted effort to create an atmosphere of respect that values each and every living creature precisely for their unique qualities; an atmosphere that not only appreciates others but that also honors the self.
“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” Dr. Seuss, Happy Birthday to You!
Books can be extremely helpful in fostering a climate that encourages reflection and instills empathy. Who doesn’t suffer with the ugly duckling or feel angry at the mean swans? In both fairy and modern tales the most important quality, and one not lost on the child, is character. There is a great power in language, and reading to your child is a wonderful way to fill their hearts with caring. There is no need to focus only on books that specifically address bullying (and there are many fine ones for all ages). Books that address diversity such as David McKee’s Elmer the Elephant, champion courage, like Watty Piper’s classic, The Little Engine That Could, or promote individuality as in Kevin Henkes’ Chrysanthemum, help children understand that being little does not mean being incapable and being different does not mean being an outcast. Books of this nature are helpful in beginning conversations that allow the child to examine and express feelings difficult to articulate.
Unconscionably, studies show that children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be victims of chronic bullying directly related to their disability. (Marshal,Kendall, Banks, & Gover (Eds.) 2009). It is a short distance from being bullied to bullying one’s self: I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m gross, I’m worthless..words that become a endless reel in the victim’s mind, leading to anxiety, anorexia, depression and other unbalanced emotional states. When parents and teachers cultivate an awareness of others, and introduce an early exposure to people of all colors, ideas, cultures, and disabilities, they are planting the seeds of empathy. While it may be difficult to expose a very young child to this broad family of man, books can take us all over the world, through time and space, and into the thoughts and feelings of a vast diversity of people.
30% of all school age children are either bullies or bullied while 70% look the other way. More than half of all bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied. (Hawkins, Pepler, and Craig, 2001) The statistics speak for themselves. Bullying is a cultural phenomenon. There is tremendous strength in the 70%. Let’s raise our children to be courageous, to speak up for injustice. We may not be able to change the reality of bullying, but we can work, from the very beginning, to raise empathetic children, with a sense of individual pride and dignity who will use their 70% majority to speak up for what is right-beginning in the school corridors, and spreading from there out into the world.