Adults Teaching Children: The Legitimatization of Bullying

When I was in Grade 4, I struggled with an ability to read, especially when asked to read in front of the class. I wasn’t dyslexic but I was quite shy, and not at all confident about my intellectual abilities relative to my peers.

Unfortunately, I had a teacher who, I discovered many years later, had a reputation for being a bully that extended far beyond the city of Winnipeg where I lived for that one terrible year.

At the time, I didn’t consider the fact that she encouraged the kids in the class to laugh at the many mistakes I made while reading in front of them as bullying. Nor did I consider her a bully after I stopped reading and began to cry helplessly at the front of the classroom and she still didn’t stop the student’s laughter.

In fact, she continued to encourage it.

I didn’t blame her when those same kids openly mocked me while chasing me all the way home after school day after day.

Now, I feel differently. I believe she played a significant role in legitimizing bullying behavior in her students. She led the way, and her students followed suit; her behavior gave them permission to act in a similarly cruel and unfeeling way – the way bullies act.

To the extent that bullying behavior continued in those same children when they grew up. I’ll never know. But what is clear to me now is the crucial role that adults play in teaching kids appropriate ways to behave – and not by saying so, but by doing so.

This is my story of a year of bulling, and not a terrible one relative to what we’ve heard about the many children who’ve suffered bullying for years. And now, too often, publicly on the Internet.

Far too many of these young victims decide to escape their torture by killing themselves (both figuratively by isolating themselves, and literally by taking their own lives). Bullying – at any level and toward any person – needs to stop, and we must come to see that we all need to play a vital role in making it end.

The purpose of this article is to highlight what years of researchers have come to understand: that a large percentage of kids who engage in bullying behavior have learned how to act in this way – either directly or indirectly – by the adults who have had the greatest influence on them such as parents, older siblings, relatives, teachers, media personalities, and so on.

In other words, the bullying behavior has been legitimized by adults, and more often than not, the recipients of bullying often results in these same kids going out into the world with the motive to ‘rewrite’ the story of their own powerlessness through a continuous string of ‘zero sum games’.

That is, where they must gain at the expense of someone else’s loss – and the loss of ‘the other’ more often than not includes perpetrating the same bullying behavior they themselves were victim to during an earlier stage of their own lives.

From my experience over the years as a psychotherapist, I see two types of individuals arise out of childhood bullying:

  • Those who make a silent promise that they’ll never, EVER, let anyone dominate them again and, thus, they become bullies themselves; and,
  • Those who’ve become hyper-vigilant to the pain of others because they’ve experienced a great deal of pain themselves as children and can, therefore, relate.
     
    Typically, these are empathetic individuals but ones who suffer from their own wounds, for example, being overly-sensitive to the reactions of others.

Yet, for all its pluses and minuses, I thankfully became the latter type of person, as the choice of my profession reflects.

Regardless, research results indicate that we are indelibly formed by what we experience as children, and if you’ve ever been the target of bulling, you know exactly what I mean.

No bullies in the White HouseSo why am I writing about this now? Well, I’ve been glued to CNN over the past several weeks watching the level of discourse between two U.S. presidential candidates drop to an all-time low – a low that I’ve never witnessed during any previous presidential campaigns during my lifetime.

I suppose I should say that both of these candidates are equally bad but, in my opinion, they aren’t. And, although my political leanings might be reflected in what I’m about to write, I really don’t care.

Speaking up against the kind of bullying that I’ve witnessed on the part of Donald Trump is more important to me than remaining politically anonymous.

During the course of his campaign, I’ve watched in utter disbelief as he’s ridiculed and belittled any number of people, including those with disabilities, members of particular races and faiths, and 50% (or more) of the population: women.

And does he care? No, clearly not.

That’s just the way he is – or, at least the way he was raised.

Apparently, his father was a bully, and when we listen to Trump’s sons, they, too, appear to lean toward the same direction as both their father and grandfather.

Thus, my earlier point: we either become a bully after being raised by one, or we don’t.

Without doubt, the part that troubles me the most about this election season is the impact Trump is having on the behavior of his so-called ‘followers’. Never has there been a level of anger, racism, disrespect, and hatred in the U.S. since before the 60s Civil Rights movement. And it’s rising to this level because Trump, who’s attempting to gain access to the highest office in the U.S., is literally legitimizing the act of bullying.

As we know, those who follow behind and support bullies – directly or indirectly – are usually those who often feel powerless themselves, and, therefore, they enjoy the vicarious pleasure of watching someone who, unlike them, is not afraid to act ‘powerfully’, albeit in this case nastily, against others.

It’s as if Trump has given rise to all those in the U.S. who’ve felt, in large part, marginalized or even forgotten by those who hold office in Washington, and now they believe (misguidedly) that feel they should elect someone who will bully ‘the system’ in order to stand up for their individual rights. (Unfortunately, Trump is a narcissist and, consequently, all he cares about is winning; he cares little about the needs of his followers which, sadly, they’ll soon discover.)

Legitimizing the kind of behavior that acts to dominate and ridicule others for the singular purpose of aggrandizing one’s own sense of power over them is becoming the over-arching echo of this presidential election. And it concerns me greatly that Trump, with his disrespectful treatment of others, is becoming a hero of sorts to the so-called disenfranchised.

“If a presidential candidate can get away with it, then why can’t ‘I’?” could possibly be the refrain of bullies of all ages, and in countries all around the world. Everyone is watching this election play out, and each and every one of the viewers is either going to respect the bully, or reject him.

In either case, that it’s happening at this level of engagement, already legitimizes bullying because the majority of those who are members of his party have not stood apart from him. Why? Well, because they don’t want to risk losing their own limited power with the community of people who originally elected them.

Thus, the power of the bully continues to echo in the behavior of those who choose to stay silent, passive, and in fear of rejecting unacceptable behavior because they’re afraid of what might happen to them if they do.

Consequently, what’s playing out in the race for the highest office of the United States of America is really not very different than the one that continues to play out in far too many homes, on our school grounds, in board rooms, and on the Internet. T

oo many people remain silent and afraid of the bully (or their followers) in fear of being targeted themselves. And so bullying continues to thrive.

So my overall point? It is two-fold:

  1. As adults we are charged with the responsibility of teaching children, by our actions, appropriate and kind ways to behave. They watch us closely. Don’t ever tell yourself differently. And,
  2. teach your kids, by demonstrating, that remaining silent in the face of bullying is wrong. I’d rather I, or my children, be someone who’d chose to act against the degradation of another person than be someone who chose to stay silent and remember that about myself for the rest of my life.

    It’s not always an easy choice, as we know. It can be scary to stand up but it’s more damaging to ourselves, and to others, in the long run if we don’t.

I’d like to encourage you to re-engage in conversations with your children about bullying, even using the context of the U.S. election as a ‘living’ example if they’ve been exposed to the varying types of bullying that’s been ongoing during this campaign for over a year.

Explain to your kids how the election process is just another form of playground bullying and reinforce the fact they’ll likely bump into legitimized bullying in the workplace probably more often than they’ve witnessed it as kids at school.

One thing is for sure, the disgrace of this current presidential race has offered us all the opportunity to learn far more about life and ourselves than simply who’ll be the next president of the United States.

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