Why Is Your Kid a Bully? A Discussion on Prevention

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By Michelle Moon

We’ve all been inundated by the emotionally overwhelming stories of bullied teens committing suicide or going on killing sprees, which are often accompanied by instructional pieces on how to teach your child to recognize bullying, to not be a bystander, and to stand up for the bullied… but I haven’t seen much aimed at preventing bullies from becoming the little nightmares we adults all remember. In other words, what about the parents of the next generation of bullies? Yes, YOU.

What is a bully?
I think it’s safe to say we all remember bullies in school, whether we were the bully, the bystander, or the bullied. In the classic TV world, the bully is an overgrown, heavily freckled, soulless ginger shaking a fist while demanding milk money (why were the redheads always bullies on TV?). In more recent years, it’s the teenager on Facebook torturing a girl she doesn’t like through a series of harsh rejections and public ridicule. Historically, it was surmised that bullies lacked self-esteem and bullied others to “be better than someone” and “reject their own vulnerability”; more recent studies show alarming trends—most bullies have excellent self-esteem. Many actually do believe they’re better than others, have an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and lack compassion, impulse control, and social skills. The question is, how did these self-aggrandizing brats come to be?

Better than others.
Why would a kid feel like they’re better than anyone else? Well, being told they’re perfect, encouraged to show off, and having every accomplishment uber-celebrated comes to mind. But what else? Have you ever heard a father at a barbecue telling racial or ethnic jokes when they think the kids are “out of earshot”? Or witnessed the endlessly competitive helicopter parents who pound it into their youngsters that they’re the best, everyone else is below par, and they lost because the ref is stupid? Convincing them that they are the best means others have to be less—if there’s no scale on which people are neatly placed, how can he be the best?

Entitlement
How do you keep your kid from feeling entitled? On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a difficult question. Make them work for things they want; don’t just hand them money when they want it, or get them that new iPad “just because.” Has your child ever cried, yelled, or thrown a fit because they didn’t get the present they wanted for their birthday? Gifts should about the giving, not a right to free stuff. Gift-giving is about more than material goods. And don’t assume that entitlement is just a problem in financially privileged families—one doesn’t need to be rich to teach their children that they deserve priority over everyone else.

Lack of compassion.
We’ve all seen toddlers burst into tears because another child is crying—this is empathy, the taking on and sharing of the emotions of others. Compassion is when that child wobbles over with a toy to make the other feel better. The two are closely linked and both are necessary in preventing a child from becoming a bully. If a child learns that certain people are not worthy, they close themselves off to “those people” and anyone they perceive as like “those people.” The key to preventing your child from inheriting and nurturing your even off-hand prejudices into a reason to cut off understanding and compassion toward another is to be respectful of others. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? You can’t teach a child to be respectful of others if a) YOU are not respectful of others (to their face and behind their backs!), and b) disrespectful behaviors are not corrected.

Lack of impulse control.
Why must we control our impulses, really? Because our impulses don’t always lead us to the best place. Example: Is that flame hot? Impulse control prevents us from sticking our hand in it to find out. Impulse control is using reason and logic to override some momentary desire. From the time a child is able to move about, we teach them impulse control to keep them safe from harm—“don’t touch the stove, it’s hot; no running in the house, you’ll bust your head open on the coffee table.” But impulse control is mostly taught in the context of harmful physical consequences. What about less-immediate or non-physical consequences? “Don’t interrupt. Don’t nag. Don’t throw yourself on the ground in the store because I’m not buying Lucky Charms.” All of these are impulses, and if the reasons for curbing them are not made clear, there’s no reasoning to keep them in check. “Don’t interrupt, it makes having conversations with or around you unpleasant. Don’t nag and whine, it makes people want to avoid you. Don’t throw yourself on the ground, it makes me not want to take you into public.” If children don’t learn the social consequences of lack of impulse control, they often won’t realize until later in life that poor behavior can and will drive people away. Kids have to learn that not every impulse is to be indulged, and YOU are their teacher. YOU have to teach them why.

The bottom line is that we need to be teaching our kids respect, both by example and enforced expectations; to be respectful in their actions, that other people (even with their differences!) are worthy of consideration, and to fully grasp the fact that they are no more or less important than anyone else.