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Bullying and Our Culture

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

Bullying is about power. It is repetitive hurtful behavior that communicates very clearly, “I have the power and you don’t.” It happens between children between adults and…this one can be harder to acknowledge, it happens between adults and children. October is anti-bullying month. There are lots of articles this month about bullying that happens at school – this one is about the kind of bullying that is adult initiated. It is one (not the only) place where our children learn how to bully.

One of the women I coach has a high level position at a large technology company. She shared with me a story of a director that is considered “wonderful” but frequently humiliates (in public) the people who report to him. His idea apparently is that you’ll be so afraid to make a mistake you won’t make one. My client noticed that everyone is too afraid of him to ask to be treated respectfully. There is a code of silence around his awful treatment of the people who work for him. They are afraid that if they speak up, they will lose their job. Sound familiar?

You may also notice that some athletic coaches bully their team. They yell, scream and publicly humiliate the athletes. Many of us accept this. We show it on TV. And we think that it is legitimate because it is “the way” to get these very talented athletes to do what they are supposed to do.

Adults use power in this way to change someone’s behavior by humiliating them or scaring them. There is an implicit assumption that the person is not already doing the best they can at the moment, that somehow they don’t care and that fear and shame will be helpful motivators. This is craziness. We know from brain science that when we are threatened our ability to learn new things shuts down. Athletes and talented technology workers are there because they want to be there. They dream of being on the “A” team, and are working hard to improve performance. Is the bullying really helping?

And, as a culture we buy into this. There is little public outrage at the very public bullying we (and our children) see on television. What are our children learning?

As adults and as parents let’s be better “bystanders. Let’s acknowledge that scaring and humiliating other human beings is not the way we want to treat each other.

Speak up when you witness an adult hurting or scaring another person (adult or child).
Talk to your children about whether they learn better when they are being yelled at or shamed, or when someone notices their strengths and gives them a suggestion about how to make an improvement. Use what you see on television or on the ball field as material for reflection and learning.
Be a proactive bystander. If your child’s coach uses the “traditional” shame tactics, have the courage to have a conversation with him or her (privately). Know that s/he is not intentionally trying to hurt children, but is not familiar with the skills to teach without hurting.
Be a learner. Our culture is powerful. If you catch yourself in moments of frustration reverting to threats or shame with your partner or children, be compassionate with yourself: do your best to repair the mistake, ask for help, take a parenting workshop, or find other ways to get more effective tools.

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