On the Origins of Bullying

I just found a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant post about bullying:

This is sort of a common cultural trope – kids are embarrassed by their parents, the parents see the kids’ embarrassment as foolish and invalid, and the parents therefore take a certain delight in embarrassing their kids.  And, as a cultural trope, it’s seen as all in good fun, at least by the parents.

But it seems to me that this is the kind of thing that could foster bullying attitudes.

A kid in a family like this will learn that feelings aren’t worth respecting. If someone finds something humiliating, taking advantage of that fact to make them feel humiliated is normal, valid, and entertaining.  Surely no good can come of taking that attitude into the schoolyard with them!  The kid will also learn (as I did) that baseline human reality is that people want to embarrass you, and develop self-worth and defense mechanisms accordingly.

In the midst of all the crap published nowadays on the subject of bullying, it is very refreshing to see a blogger offer an intelligent, insightful analysis that is not based on the same tired collection of platitudes one encounters everywhere.

If children learn to see the world as menacing, hostile, and out to hurt one in a variety of unpredictable ways, they will grow up to have every aspect of their lives infected by this worldview. I have no doubt that most parents have absolutely no idea what a powerful effect their ill-considered casual remarks and actions have. “Why is my daughter always so sad? Why does she have trouble falling asleep? Why is my son suffering from anxiety?” they ask, oblivious to how their own actions turned their children into perennially terrified, anxious creatures who see the world as a profoundly unsafe place.

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22 comments on “On the Origins of Bullying

  1. My parents didn’t belittle my emotions, although they were inclined to demean, dismiss and undermine my intellect. That was an entirely different thing. It made me confused about a great number of my perceptions. Rather than dismiss my perceptions, as I’d been taught to do, I began to make a project of recording the phenomenology of my everyday experiences — which was how my writing started.

    • And what really pisses me off is I did this to redeem myself, to restore my sense of my own experiences in order to stop myself from going crazy — and then people distort that, according to their ideologies of ego and the individual, and make it out to be something it wasn’t.

  2. I have mixed feelings about that post. The context of the parent’s actions is important. In this comic strip, we don’t know what the mother feels about talking to her son’s class. Is this something she really wants to do, or is she indifferent? I once went to the principal of my son’s school to complain about the school’s participation in the Children’s Shoebox campaign (children collect gifts which will be put in shoe boxes, along with Christian propaganda, which will then be distributed to kids in third world countries to attempt to convert them to Christianity). At the time, my son was mostly embarrassed, but also a little proud. But I strongly objected to the school participating in this program, and I felt that my needs outweighed his on this point. At a certain age, kids are embarrassed by their parents very easily. Parents need to keep this in mind, and try to minimize the embarrassment, but I don’t think it is good for the kids to believe that they have control over how their parents live their lives.

      • The “brilliant post” was based on a comic strip of a woman trying to decide whether or not to accept an invitation to speak to her son’s class. For some reason, not disclosed, the son felt this would embarrass him. At first glance, this seems trivial. And not dissimilar to my going to speak to the principal of my son’s school. Of course we can all agree that parents shouldn’t laugh at their children or trivialize their emotions. Do we really need a blog post to tell us that? I hope not. The interesting question is how far do we need to go to accomodate our children’s fear of embarrassment. At what point do we change our lives because our children want us to?

      • “The interesting question is how far do we need to go to accomodate our children’s fear of embarrassment. At what point do we change our lives because our children want us to?”

        – The boy’s father “enjoys seeing his son squirm.” You prefer to make this about parents being expected to “change their lives because children want that.” I have got to wonder what makes you misread a very simple sentence in such a way. Are you not outraged by the callousness of a father who ENJOYS seeing his own kid’s suffering?? And by the complete heartlessness of a mother who thinks that the whole situation is funny? Maybe you never experienced what it means to have the kind of parents who hurt you on purpose because it entertains them. If so, you are very fortunate.

        “Of course we can all agree that parents shouldn’t laugh at their children or trivialize their emotions. Do we really need a blog post to tell us that? ”

        – Many people do need to be reminded of that.

      • Was the son “suffering” because his mother was going to talk to the class about creative writing? I do remember being embarrassed by my mother. She was the Guide leader of my Girl Guide group. I was a shy child, and of course I wanted the other girls to like me. My mother would sometimes have to discipline the other girls (speak firmly to them, nothing inappropriate), and I would squirm. I wanted my mother to be nice to everyone, no matter what, so the other girls would like me. I was just mortified when she would speak firmly another girl. I was certain everyone thought my mother was mean. I can see now how ridiculous this was. Should my mother have never disciplined anyone so that there would be no possibility of people disliking me because of my mother? No. The mother in the comic strip is facing the same kind of dilemma: should she refrain from doing something perfectly normal and appropriate because her child is at the stage where they are embarrassed by everything their parents do? Sometimes your child just has to be embarrassed by his parents and learn to deal with it. Yeah, the father sounds like a bit of a jerk.
        No, my parents never humiliated me for their own entertainment. But I think we need to distinguish between a parent speaking about their job to their children’s class and humiliating the child for their own entertainment.

      • “Was the son “suffering” because his mother was going to talk to the class about creative writing? ”

        – The parents themselves seem to think so.

        “The mother in the comic strip is facing the same kind of dilemma: should she refrain from doing something perfectly normal and appropriate because her child is at the stage where they are embarrassed by everything their parents do?”

        – I don;t see what is so perfectly normal about wanting to do something like this. The only reason one would have to appear in front of a kid’s classmates is for the benefit of that kid, right? Why else would one want to waste the time? But if there is no benefit to the kid in question, if he suffers because of it, why go at all?

        “But I think we need to distinguish between a parent speaking about their job to their children’s class and humiliating the child for their own entertainment.”

        – A parent who chooses a very strange desire to speak about her job to a class over her own son’s discomfort, no matter how reasonable or unreasonable she finds that discomfort, is a horrible mother. When you love somebody, causing them suffering so needlessly is just not an option. Then this same mother will blame everybody else when her son becomes a victim of a bully. She will never recognize that the only reason he is getting bullied is that this is the role she assigned to him by bullying him first.

      • Apparently the mother is a writer. And the teacher asked her to talk to the class about writing. So the teacher thinks she has something to say that would benefit all the students, not just her own son. This is obviously not her desire to talk to the class, it is the teacher’s request, and she hasn’t made up her mind whether to accept the teacher’s request or not. You are twisting the facts to try to improve your argument. But I accept that parents should not embarrass their children. I accept that this creates a “victim mentality” in the child. I agree with you on 90% of the issue. My only point is that on some occassions, the fact that the child will be embarrassed is not the determining factor in making a decision.
        Consider this scenario: all the parents will be giving short talks to the class about their jobs. Ignore for the moment whether or not you think this is a good idea. Your child tells you that she doesn’t want you to go, because she will be embarrassed. You ask her why. She says, because you are fat. Or because you have a birthmark on your face. She never wants to be seen with you again. You are a good parent and discuss with her body image issues. It doesn’t matter. She understands all that, she says, but you would still embarrass her. So do you not go? You would be showing her that you respect her feelings, but you would also be showing her that you do not respect yourself. You would be showing her that fat people or people who look different should stay home.

      • “Apparently the mother is a writer. And the teacher asked her to talk to the class about writing. So the teacher thinks she has something to say that would benefit all the students, not just her own son. This is obviously not her desire to talk to the class, it is the teacher’s request, and she hasn’t made up her mind whether to accept the teacher’s request or not. ”

        – So some random teacher’s request is more important than her own son’s discomfort? Once again, what a horrible mother. She can’t say no to a complete stranger to spare her son discomfort? Jeez.

        “You are twisting the facts to try to improve your argument.”

        – Which facts?

        “My only point is that on some occassions, the fact that the child will be embarrassed is not the determining factor in making a decision.”

        – I’m discussing a specific comic strip. The occasion portrayed in it is pretty clear-cut. There is absolutely no pressing need for the mother to walk all over her son’s feelings in this specific situation.

        “Consider this scenario: all the parents will be giving short talks to the class about their jobs. Ignore for the moment whether or not you think this is a good idea. Your child tells you that she doesn’t want you to go, because she will be embarrassed. You ask her why. She says, because you are fat. Or because you have a birthmark on your face. She never wants to be seen with you again.”

        – If that happened, I would know that I’ve been doing something deeply wrong in the relationship with this child and she is now trying to hide her pain behind the discussion of fatness and birthmarks. To me, this would be a prompt to start seriously evaluating my relationship with the child, probably I’d go into therapy to solve my issues. But the one place I would NEVER go is the kid’s classroom. This would further aggravate an already bad relationship between us. Why would I run that risk? For what higher purpose? Just in order to blab for an hour in front of people I don’t care about I would risk an entire relationship with my child?

        “You would be showing her that you respect her feelings, but you would also be showing her that you do not respect yourself. You would be showing her that fat people or people who look different should stay home.”

        – When a child tells her mother “I’m embarrassed that you are fat”, this comment is absolutely not about fatness. Translating a very specific rejection of the mother as a comment about some nameless “fat people” stems from the desire to avoid looking closely at the damaged relationship between the mother and the child. The only place where a child learns that it is OK to make hurtful comments is, once again, at home.

        “You would be showing her that fat people or people who look different should stay home.”

        – I did not suggest that anybody stay home. Going to the school and staying home are not the only options. There is a multitude of places a parent could go.

      • The fact you were twisting is that it is the mother’s desire to speak to the class. In the comic strip, it was the teacher’s desire that the mother speak to the class, and the mother didn’t seem to care one way or the other.
        The fact that the child would not say something to hurt her parent if they had a good relationship just supports my argument. The child is embarrassed but wont say why, because they don’t want to hurt their parents feelings. So they either wont say why, or make up some reason that is not the real reason. And the parents have a discussion with the child over the fake reason and think they have dealt with the problem, but they haven’t.
        In my example of my Mom being the Girl Guide leader, she embarrassed me, but I never told her. I wouldn’t have hurt her feelings. I also knew I was being unreasonable. But it didn’t stop me from feeling embarrassed.
        Of course a perfect parent will always be supportive and self-sacrificing and be perfectly in tune with their child, whether their child expresses themselves or not. Yeah. Good luck with that!

    • Going to talk to the principal about something, especially something like that, is one thing. But I wouldn’t have spoken for my kids’ classes if they were uncomfortable with it. (At different ages they would have different reactions, I think.)

  3. As someone who was exposed to a non-trivial amount of bullying in elementary school (a lot less in jr and hardly any in sr high school) I’m very glad for my parents’ reaction to what they knew about (which was far from everything).

    Consciously and unconsciously they projected confidence in my ability to deal with adversity (in the form of other people) and a mixture of contempt and pity for bulliers (and cut short my own misguided attempts to cope by bullying those few with even less status than I had, in faster than light speed). It might not work for all kids but it worked for me in giving me the psychic armor to survive the bullying without becoming warped in the process (some readers here might disagree about that latter point).

    My parents were very far from perfect and weren’t shy about loading their baggage onto their children who were not ready or equipped to deal with it (and, frankly, they were downright incompetent in an area or three) but all in all they got the big issues right more often than not. It surprised them as much as me “what did we do right?” they asked a time or two as their children managed to flourish in their own way as adults while our peers floundered or self-destructed.

    Their main lesson which they probably didn’t realize they were imparting was, roughly: “You’re only a part of others’ reality to the degree you choose” was a rare and precious gift without which I might have been miserable (or just plain not survived).

  4. Far too many people do not respect their kids as individuals. These parents are control freaks who want their kids to be mini-mes, do not care what they think, how they feel, or what they like.

    In the example in the blog post, the reasonable thing would be to ask the child if s/he minded that the mother give a talk, and if the child disagreed, find out why and discuss it. The ultimate decision should rest with the child, having gone through the issues.

    Steamrollering over a child’s sensibilities will only lead to an insecure child wracked with self-doubt.

    • I agree with the principle behind this, but it will only work if you have an intelligent, articulate child who is able to say something perhaps hurtful to his parent. It’s one thing to say, “Don’t come to school, I’m going to be so embarrassed,” and another to say, “Your nose is going to run and you’ll dab at it with a tissue and then stick the used tissue up your sleeve and that’s so disgusting,” or “You wear too much makeup and it looks stupid.” Many kids can’t formulate exactly what it is that embarrasses them, and many kids just don’t want to say. And if the parent does hear a criticism, are they going to be mature enough to accept it, and not get angry and defensive? I mean, we all do so well at accepting criticism from our peers, don’t we? The danger here is that the child will not be able to articulate his reason, or will articulate the wrong one, and that the parent will think they’ve dealt with it.
      I think there is a continuum here. At one end there is a parent intentionally embarrassing a child for no reason other than entertainment, for instance at a party calling the child over and telling a story to his/her friends about a stupid thing the child did, or pointing out a bad haircut, or something like that, which is always wrong. At the other end of the continuum, we have the parent being embarrassing just by the fact of being who they are, for instance the child does not want a parent to wear a particular dress because it shows off her arms which the child thinks look fat, or they don’t want to be seen with the parent because the parent has a birthmark on his/her face. In this case, I think it is important that the child does not get his/her own way.
      In the middle of the continuum we have the comic strip situation, where the child will be embarrassed by the mother, but hasn’t said why, and the mother doesn’t seem to care whether she speaks to the class or not. Probably, the mother should not go.
      The goal, I think, is to let the child know that he/she is respected, but also to let the child know that the parent respects him/herself, and expects the child to respect the parent too.

      • “And if the parent does hear a criticism, are they going to be mature enough to accept it, and not get angry and defensive? I mean, we all do so well at accepting criticism from our peers, don’t we? The danger here is that the child will not be able to articulate his reason, or will articulate the wrong one, and that the parent will think they’ve dealt with it.”

        – You are describing an extremely immature parent who doesn’t love his or her child.

      • No, I’m describing a normal person. No one likes to be criticized! (You certainly don’t!) Being criticized by someone you love is especially hurtful. It is just a normal human reaction to get defensive. Of course you should talk to your child about why you embarrass them, but this vision of highly articulate, reasonable, ego-less parents discussing personal matters with their highly articulate, reasonable, ego-less children is just a fantasy.

      • “Of course you should talk to your child about why you embarrass them, but this vision of highly articulate, reasonable, ego-less parents discussing personal matters with their highly articulate, reasonable, ego-less children is just a fantasy.”

        – One don;t need to be all that articulate or reasonable to figure this out. One just needs to love a child, that’s all.

    • “In the example in the blog post, the reasonable thing would be to ask the child if s/he minded that the mother give a talk, and if the child disagreed, find out why and discuss it. The ultimate decision should rest with the child, having gone through the issues.

      Steamrollering over a child’s sensibilities will only lead to an insecure child wracked with self-doubt.”

      – This is exactly what I’m saying. Why would one even want to go to the kid’s school if it makes the kid so miserable?

  5. I cannot believe that such a trivial post (no offense, sis – it was a great topic!!) would lead to so much back-and-forth. My daughter is under 3 years old and, as articulate as she is for her age, she is certainly not yet able to articulate every emotion and the underlining reason for it. A couple of months ago she didn’t want me to walk into the daycare with her, but only wanted her father to accompany her for a few consecutive days. I have no idea why and neither did I inquire. Personally, I love going into her school, chatting with the teachers and making sure that my daughter has everything she needs to start her day. But obviously I waited outside and let her go in with her Dad, and spent my time thinking of more important things, rather than obssessing over my weight or birth marks. As a parent, you need to be sensitive to your kid’s needs and pick your ‘battles’. If you feel that something needs to be investigated further, you choose a quiet and calm time and have a chat with your child to understand.

    I always say that you need to apply the same communication style to dealing with your kid as you do to dealing with other loved ones. If my husband’s boss asked me to come in and do a presentation to the staff, I would obviously ask my husband how he felt about the idea. And if he told me that it made him uncomfortable, I obviously wouldn’t insist on going. It’s common sense, isn’t it?

  6. As I said, I agree with the proposition that you should not take actions that embarrass your kids, and if you do so, you are treating them in way that may lead to their being victims of bullying. My only point is that sometimes it is appropriate to do something that may have, as a side effect, the embarrassment of your child. As far as I can tell, Clarissa thinks that you should never, under any circumstances, do anything that would embarrass your child, and I think that, the general rule has some exceptions. I haven’t convinced her, she hasn’t convinced me. I will leave it at that.

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