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Could We All Be Bullies?

The majority of American parents have become increasingly worried about the probability that their children will be bullied, and they’ve begun to ask for solutions. A recent Harris poll found that two-thirds of parents worry that their preschool/kindergarten children will be bullied. Though bullying has been a part of human experience since before recorded time, our shrinking world increases its presence and possibly forecasts an increased toll to our children. My grandparents believed, ‘what didn’t break you, made you stronger’; today, we’re a little more worried about the ‘breaking’ coming before the ‘strengthening’ – especially among our youngsters.

Bullying is a problematic, but not inevitable, part of human interpersonal business. It differs from the usual scrapes and chafes of everyday life because of its intentional nature. Toddlers and preschoolers are busy working on their unique sense of self, using newly learned personal pronouns to announce what’s theirs. This includes their toys, body parts and random objects that catch the eye (see Toddler Property Laws in my book, ‘Me, Myself and I’). So, when someone unknowingly violates one of these property laws, ‘No, mine!’ gets screamed and a brief, small (in the scheme of things) social encounter of an aggressive nature may occur. A parent or teacher usually handles such incidents with some helpful words and – it’s on with the day.

Bullying, however, is an intentional, aggressive act – social or physical – with the sole aim of intimidating a peer. Such acts happen daily on the margins of adult supervision and as such are witnessed by most peers. Most of the children we know have either been a perpetrator, victim or bystander – since as long as they can remember, these three jobs may even be a continuum.

We are born with a drive to master the world around us, and a portion of selfishness and aggression seems to be part of everyone’s tool kit. Parents begin early by helping their children get the ‘dosage’ right, helped along by culture and society’s expectations. One of nature’s partners in this process is the innate capacity for empathy which shows up, developmentally, in the middle of the second year of life. Remember the toddler offering (temporarily) his binky or blankie to a sad friend?  How do we get from there to Michele Anthony’s descriptions of the painful social bullying in her Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-proof Girls in the Early Grades in just a few short years? Well, we could go on forever, but in this article’s worth of advice, I know parents are pretty sure they’d like to strengthen their child’s defenses against distressing stuff.

Supporting an early drive to care for one another is the winning strategy. The brain –and its hormonal partners- treat acts of kindness and caring with the same special care as it does warm human relationships. The ‘relationship hormone’, oxytocin, increases whenever such acts are performed, improving our capacity to regulate our emotions and get our aggression and selfishness under control. If parents can ‘catch’ their children in small acts of kindness and add a few words to explain why this feels good – to them and to the child, and why they value it so highly – resilience to bullying when parents are not around is under construction.

Speaking up about how we treat each other is an especially powerful tool in anti-bullying strategies because it has the power of majority.  Bullying feeds on our silence. Let’s help each other and our children find our voices.