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How to Educate Young Children about Bullying

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them—James Baldwin

There has recently been an emphasis on “kindness” in U.S. schools. Children are taught to listen empathically to each other and to resolve disputes without coercion or violence. Anti-bullying programs have proliferated, addressing bullying in school and online. U.S. universities, such as Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, have established programs to train people in living with compassion and kindness.

Meanwhile public life in the country has been marked by an upsurge in “hard ball” politics and business. Donald Trump’s twitter feed is marked by mockery of, and threats directed toward, people who disagree with him. He brags about personally being able to get away with murder, exploiting women and denigrating people on the basis of their physical characteristics and ethnicity. His bullying behavior co-exists with his wife’s advocacy of anti-bullying programs in schools.

There is nothing new in this situation, nothing new in the hypocrisy surrounding it. What may be new is the blatant surfacing of the violence that has always characterized human behavior, along with denial and dissociation in the name of virtue. The challenge for those of us who raise and educate children is how to help children of various ages learn about, and come to terms with, what is right in front of their faces on the newsstands, online, on the nightly news, in their homes.

Sometimes there is a noticeable split: kindness within the family, (though the Judeo-Christian Bible reminds us that murderous sibling rivalry is fundamental, and often there is a scapegoat, a family member who doesn’t toe the family line). There is often kindness within the community of identification, one’s own people, with outsiders, the marginalized, subject to oppression and cruelty.

For young children, such contradictions must be addressed on a very concrete level in classrooms and in families. There are two major guiding principles, both deriving from the potential we all share for violent and cruel action: first, bullying and other acts of coercion and violence should not result in unnecessary ostracism or marginalization. “Time out”, for example, should be clearly understood to allow time to calm down, not to punish. The offending child’s return to the group should be seen as an opportunity to teach everyone about how best to express anger and competition. The second principle is that people who commit destructive acts should be given the opportunity to repair the damage they have caused to the extent possible.

Any of us are capable of acting in a bullying or coercive fashion. We cannot deal with our own potential for violence by singling out offenders, by attempting to cleanse ourselves by locating untoward aggression somewhere “out there”. Rather, we should deal with such behavior by attempting to activate the offender’s remorse and reparative impulse. We should attempt to educate offending young children by educational means, encouraging them to express anger and competition in less destructive ways such as schools sometimes employ with methods of “restorative justice”. Violent or shaming methods of discipline tend to model the behavior we are attempting to discourage, perpetuating destructive vicious circles and communicating that it's a dog eat dog world out there in which superior capacity for coercion prevails. Of course, it is a dog eat dog world out there, at least in many quarters, but here we are trying to get to the root of this self perpetuating problem.

Violent and destructive behavior, of which, to repeat, we are all capable, is detoxified to a degree when there is potential for reparation. Teachers and parents should encourage efforts to “talk through” what has happened when one child harms another physically or emotionally. When a thing, a toy or other possession has been damaged, the child who has caused the damage should be encouraged to help repair it. When people feel that there is no way to repair the damage they have done, they develop an image of self as fundamentally destructive, eventually embracing this self-concept and reinforcing it with their behavior.

Many teachers and parents intuitively follow these principles more or less consistently. Nonetheless, we all get angry, sometimes enraged, at children who hurt others and destroy things; it is tempting to exact an eye for an eye, but as Gandhi famously reminded us, an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

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