Twice this week I heard someone say that bullies learn their behavior at home. Like father, like son, or something to that effect.
Is this true? Bullying is everywhere these days. It’s sweeping the country, so according to the promoters of the like father, like son logic, American parents have turned into a bunch of assholes. If this is the case, then we should immediately drop our obsession with our kids and focus on their parents—those assholes that are causing all of the problems.
But it’s not as simple as that.
Most of what passes for bullying these days—teasing, name-calling, social exclusion—are not behaviors passed down from parent to child. They are outcroppings of the adolescent brain, especially as it travels through middle school.
Recall, if you will, the nightmare of the middle school hallway: the utter self-consciousness you felt as you walked to your locker. Or the self-absorption that surrounded you, like a cloud, as you struggled to answer a teacher’s question. Or the speed with which stupid things flew out of your mouth in the process. Or recall the middle school cafeteria, another hotbed of prepubescent angst. The fear you felt as you stood on the threshold, tray in hand, wondering where will I sit? What if I’m left alone? Is my ass fat?
Now imagine 20 or 50 or 100 pre-teens, all together, thinking the same things–pushing up against one another like a psychic rugby scrum–each one living in his or her own private hell of self-absorbed self-consciousness. All this, without the benefit of a mature brain, one that can calm itself down, reason with itself (your ass isn’t that fat), have perspective. No, the middle school brain can’t do these things on a regular basis, so what does it do? It says nasty things. It leaves people out. It is selfish. It lashes out. It makes mistakes.
Many of these mistakes are now considered bullying, and we’re despite to find the culprit. Parents are easy and natural targets. And while I’m sure some parents are just as self-absorbed and self-conscious and lacking in impulse control as their pubescent kids, I’m willing to wager that most are not. In fact, most have nothing to do with what happens between kids at school.
If we really want to help kids, we should stop blaming parents and try to understand how children’s brains and minds function during puberty and adolescence. What they need from us is patience, compassion, and the faith that they will survive this awkward and painful stage.
In mean, we did, didn’t we?