Who Makes A Bully

In our quest to help our children grow up, to learn to fend for themselves, and to become responsible and productive members of society, do we as parents inadvertently create bullies in our own children?

Since reading the Amanda Todd story a few years ago, watching Bowling For Columbine, and hearing what seems to be an unending stream of bully stories on the six o’clock news, I have become more and more concerned about how my own kids are treating others, and mostly concerned about how they are being treated by other kids.

I have been thinking a lot about how bullies are made, and also how their victims are made. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to keep my kids from becoming a victims.

I am not a psychologist. I am a father trying to do the best I can for my kids. This is One Man’s Opinion.

If there were no victims there would be no bullies.
Unfortunately there are victims. Lots of them. At least lots of potential victims. In some cases they are singled out because of physical or mental differences from the norm; Perhaps they are extremely smart and have difficulty relating to normal people, or the opposite. Perhaps they are physically different than the accepted standard. Maybe they have a disability or maybe they have done something that makes them a target. The list is long. But the bottom line is that the victim will likely fall outside the “generally accepted norm” in at least one way.

But even if they are different they only become victims because someone feels they can gain by bullying them. I wont go as far as saying they are victims because they let themselves be bullied, but I do believe there is an element of truth to that statement. At least in some cases. I’ll come back to that.

Are there bad kids, or just bad parents?
Although I do believe there are extremely rare cases where a newborn child is simply wired wrong and destined to be bad, or has such a horrible and traumatic experience as a very young child that it changes them (Dexter, anyone?), I do believe kids are born good and are made into bullies by the way they are raised or the experiences they have.

Up to a certain age, every child I’ve ever met has been honest, caring, compassionate and extremely tolerant if not completely blind to all sorts of differences in race, colour, religion, disability, etc. I think this all starts to change at about grade one, or six to seven years old, where older kids with opinions already formed are introduced at school and at other activities. I think it also differs depending on whether there are older siblings, but it seems to be around that age.

I think a lot of our jobs as parents is to learn what the kids are hearing outside the home and help them frame new things in the right way, and add knowledge or context they might not otherwise have. Unfortunately I have seen first hand many parents who spend more time ignoring their kids or trying to find reasons not to spend time with them that I can’t help but wonder how these kids will make sense of the crazy world around them. Kids need help with this and absentee parents are not helping. In fact, they are sending a message that their kids don’t matter.

As for how they are fitting in with their friends, every day when I’m putting my son or daughter to bed and they are relaxed at the end of the day, my first questions are not about what they did in class, my questions are about who they played with and what they did at recess and lunch. I ask about who they ate their lunch and snacks with. And I keep a close watch on how many birthday parties they are invited to. So far, knock wood, there haven’t been any alarm bells in our house. But if recesses or lunches are being spent alone, or worse, something wrong is going on. If the birthday party invites stop, I will be concerned.

I don’t know what to do if that happens, but at least I will be aware and we can make some early decisions.

Of course there are some bad parents … but I also believe the overwhelming majority of parents want the best for their kids and do what they can to give them the tools to be successful.

We Favour The Bully
I’d prefer my kids be neither bullies nor victims. But if I had to make a choice I would pick being a bully every single time.

With our ongoing effort to try and keep our kids from being a victim, and a bias toward bullies, do we actually create new bullies? Am I creating bullies in my kids? Does society create bullies (and then blame them for being bullies?)

Take a moment to think about the capitalist world we live in. Everywhere you look there are competitions and rewards for being the winner. Everywhere. Power is coveted and the weak are shunned and often marginalized.

Think of some of our best known celebrities. They are members of professional sports teams, musicians, and actors. They are wildly successful and wealthy beyond our comprehension. All our kids aspire to be them… But for every success there are is a thousand who didn’t make it. And every single one of those celebrities is successful because they beat someone else out of a key role of competition. I’m not saying it’s bad thing because clearly that’s how the world works. But we need to help our kids understand.

The same is true everywhere you look… The business world is another perfect example of a huge fight for a limited number of top executive spots, and often in that world there are casualties along the way.

Only the earliest of childhood sports value participation and fun over winning. So is it any wonder that our kids end up trying to “win”? Without proper help from parents to enforce teamwork, tolerance, and compassion, we should not be surprised some kids become bullies… and others victims.

Without an adult lens put on the world for our kids, it could teach them that to be successful you can, or must, do it at the expense of others. While this is partially true in our world, it doesn’t have to translate into bully behaviour.

I think that bullying is a “natural” extension of capitalist behaviour. And just as there are varying degrees of height, weight, eye colour, athletic ability, creativity, etc., there will be variations on the degree of bullying that each person exhibits.

What Do Bullies Gain
Bullies bully for the sense of superiority, control and power that they gain. The feeling of “control” and “winning” is powerful and addictive even if it is at someone else’s expense.

Perhaps this is the only area of their life where they feel successful. They may not be allowed to have a voice at home which is belittling and insulting and is, in effect, bullying itself. So they mimic their parents bullying behaviour.

Perhaps they are, or have been, a victim somewhere else in their life, such as at home with an older sibling or at a previous school.

I have to hang onto my possibly naive opinion that no one really takes pleasure from someone else’s pain. Maybe they don’t think of the pain they cause or can’t conceive of it… But I suspect the focus is on their own feelings and not on the feelings they are causing in their victims. It has to be the rarest case that a bully becomes one simply for the enjoyment of someone else’s pain.

If there were no victims…
I know that self esteem plays a big role in whether a child will end up the victim of a bully. If a child stands up to whoever picks on them at the early stages it is less likely that the bully will spend the time on a difficult victim… They will move along to someone who is weaker and less willing to stand up for themselves. So as a parent we should do everything we can to give our kids something they can be proud of and make sure they know we are proud of them. We try to help them gain a strong sense of self and help them believe in themselves. We try to feed them well and keep them physically active so they do not become victims because of the way they look or their size. We should do everything we can to keep them from becoming victims while at the same time help prevent them from becoming a bully.

We try to teach them how to stand up for themselves, first passively, then actively if necessary. If this means the occasional scuffle, as a father I’m ok with that. The danger is that a scuffle can escalate to much more depending on the tools available to the bully. It is a fine line I hope I never have to help my children walk.

Mob Mentality and Diffusion of Responsibility
There is another dangerous bit of behaviour that can be a major problem when a group is acting as a bully. It is the concept of mob mentality and the diffusion of responsibility.

These two things act together to escalate the behaviour of a group of individuals beyond what any single individual would do. I believe this is the case in many types of bullying and was surely part of the problem in the Amanda Todd case. Each person’s comments or actions in isolation may not have made much difference, but each person likely went beyond what their friends did in a sort of competition… And the end result was tragic.

And when a group is involved, it is often difficult to point a finger at any individual to say “it was your fault”. It also permits the individual to feel less responsible since it’s impossible to lay blame… The individual can escape guilt by imagining ant negative result was due to the actions of sunshine else. This knowledge will encourage an individual to go farther than they would have acting alone.

Social Media and Perceived Anonymity
I am not an experienced user of social media. I actually dislike social media when it is used for meaningless things… I really really don’t care that you just ate a peanut butter sandwich for lunch and it was awesome. Of course social media has its uses, such as maintaining contact with friends and planning events.

But it’s dangerous too.

The Internet Is Forever. Once you put anything on the public Web, whether it is a blog entry, a Facebook post, or a photograph or video, there is no way to completely remove it. Everything you say and post has the potential to follow you for the rest of your life and follow your relatives and children too. You had better be absolutely sure what you are putting out there. While kids may have a vague concept of this, there is no way they can truly understand the scope of what it means. (I actually think that many parents don’t understand it either or they’d be more careful about what THEY post!) Even if the kids do know this, they can’t imagine the potential life long ramifications of it. It is our jobs as parents to help them understand that anything they share has a global audience of several billion people, not just their friends, and that it will be out there forever. If you use social media or are a blogger, you are now a global you.

The Internet Is Anonymous. Social media, or really any kind of non personal communication, create an anonymity that encourage bad behaviour because the consequences seem so limited and any hurt that is caused is only imagined by the writer – they can’t see the pain they are causing someone else. Although I don’t use Facebook, I have seen this happen on a number of car forums that I belong to. People I have known turn into completely different and more aggressive people, ready to pick an online fight because the consequences do not seem real. It amazes me how brave people can become when they’re hiding behind a computer screen.

To bring this back to bullying, cyber bullying is an extension of the traditional bullying we normally envision. It is real and is a major concern with real consequences both to the victim, and increasingly to the bully. In essence, the computer age and social media has made bullying an international or global problem rather than the really localized problem it used to be. It also means that you can be followed and found if you try to escape from your past.

So What?
I still haven’t got to the true point of this post. Who makes a bully? Is it a person? Parent or teacher perhaps? A celebrity with the wrong message? Or is it a single defining event? A long series of events? Is it at home? Is it at school, or another place?

Is there a defining moment when a child becomes a bully, or is it a random opportunity or choice that a child makes that sets them on a bully (or victim) path?

There could be a thousand different possibilities, and it can be any of these things acting alone or in combination. I think that the pressure that creates bullies exists in our society, but I believe the strongest influence directing the actual behaviour of the child is the parent. A parent’s involvement in the formative years and into the teenage years should be the single biggest influence to how the child perceives, interprets, and understands the world. It is this guidance that can create compassion or aggression, can increase acceptance or decrease tolerance, and can influence the bully or not-bully (or victim) path that the child will take. There are many other factors beyond the parents that can influence the outcome, but with solid involvement the chances that your child will become a bully have to decrease, as will the chance that they will become a victim.

This is Just one Man’s Opinion.