Despite Title 1X of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which outlawed sexual harassment, umpteen bully prevention efforts and campaigns, bullying —which overlaps with sexual harassment — continues to thrive.
A recently released American Association of University Women poll of public and private schools found 48 percent of tweens and teens experienced harassment. A third felt sick, couldn’t study or felt reluctant to go to school. Another report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found 80 percent of teens who use social media have witnessed meanness online. A fourth of those said an online experience lead to a face-to-face confrontation.
It’s the good kids who are the villains. Somehow popularity has become meshed with aggressive, cruel behaviors. A Duke University psychologist studied popular boys in 4th through 6th grades. One-third argued and started fights, and these boys were deemed the most popular by peers.
Kids recognize the link. Long Island New York middle schoolers told me:
“Kids act mean because they think they will become more popular, get attention, have more friends and gain power.”
“Kids are mean trying to fit in or be cool.”
“Kids act mean to be the pack leader.”
Why do the visibly popular set evade consequences? Because good kids are not expected to be bullies. Yet they are according to University of Kansas’s professor Patricia Hawley. She believes that kids can no longer be divided into two groups: bad aggressive kids and good non-aggressive kids. She found 1 in 10 kids are “bi-strategic controllers” kids you use kind friendly tactics one minute and cruel, intimidating ones the next. Both maneuvers wield social power and influence. Backup studies say it’s I in 6.
Peers admire these ambidextrous leaders for their rule-breaking, particularly middle school kids who want to act older and want to flaunt authority. Add another complication: these part charismatic, part malicious popular kids get away with their behavior because teachers favor them and are less inclined to see the bad side.
It’s- cool- to- be- mean is a steady drumbeat
Being programmed to be nasty starts early according to Dr. Cynthia Scheibe of Ithaca College. After analyzing children’s TV programs, 96% had verbal insults and putdowns. Pro-social TV from PBS to Nickelodeon to Disney didn’t do much better: 66% had putdowns and insults. Toddlers learn to be bossy, controlling, rejecting and manipulative. Of 2628 putdowns measured, only 50 were reprimanded. But even if a show presents bad behavior and later addresses it, preschoolers are too young to make the connection. They just learn to be mean.
They grow into relationally aggressive tweens and teens, amped by technology. Cyber-bullies communicate without seeing the emotional damage on the face of the victim via pcs, cellphones, ipads or sites like YouTube. Rumors, slurs, ambushes get multiplied exponentially with the click of a social media button.
An intriguing connection zeroes in on the pressure to overachieve. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck tells us that 85% of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they are smart. Over-praised kids, she found, become preoccupied with their smart image. They tended to get more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. Sounds like eliminating the competition, doesn’t it?
What’s it going to take to stop the mean madness?
Toughen up the word “bullying.” “If someone smashed you against a wall and stole your money or your good name, you’d call authorities and report battery, robbery or libel. Define and punish bullying behaviors in more specific charges. Suspend for sexual harassment, assault and battery, stalking, theft, bias crimes, racial and ethnic slurs, libel, and conspiracy to commit----all specific crimes under the bullying umbrella.
Teach students how to recognize and handle emotions A Louisiana therapist Dr. Christine Belaire says, “In my practice I see adults who cannot identify and deal with their emotions. How can they successfully teach their kids to handle emotions?” Kids need to learn to process jealousy or rejection without lashing out. And they need to learn and display empathy, on the decline since the 1980s according to the Institute for Social Research.
Hit the parents where it hurts…a student’s transcript. Add a grade for Respectful to the report card. Bullies can’t make honor society, sports teams, or any leadership recognition awards. Ambitious parents planning Ivy League futures will have a choice: make sure their kids are not involved in bullying or suffer the official school record.
Hold the entire community of kids accountable. Middle school students claim there aren’t enough adults around to catch the bullies in stairwells, locker rooms, at bus stops. Remind students to break the unspoken rule about tattling.
Train teachers to undermine the caste system that favors the popular students. Unwittingly teachers favor the popular kids, the students whom they know (and often like) be--- high achievers, athletes, leaders who run the clubs and win the trophies. That familiarity can lead teachers to doubt their favorites would stuff a kid in a locker or plan a fake prom. Teachers need to learn how to bring visibility and validation to all the kids in their class equally. It is harder to do, but well worth the effort.
Popular kids didn’t get mean overnight. It took years of exposure to meanness, and years of approval and getting away with no consequences. Let’s put an end to it now.
Margaret Sagarese has coauthored two books, Cliques and Keep Cliques and Bullies from Invading Your School and presents bully&clique busting programs nationally. Reach her at email@example.com.
What makes popular kids so mean?
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