By: Joe Newman
Sara, the mother of seven-year-old Aiden told me her son was complaining that his friend of several years, Noah, a boy a year or two older, had been bullying him. Apparently, Noah had pushed him into a closet where he and another boy hit him. This had happened a few times and always out of view of any adults. Additionally, the boy told him if he tattled that he would hit him again when no one was around. This was happening when both boys were at either at Aiden or Noah’s house.
Although the occasional abuse made her son reticent, he still wanted to visit and play with his friend. His mother was concerned because this was one of very few friends Aiden had and she and the boy’s mother were also friends.
What to do?
To understand how to respond to bullying we must first understand its motivations. Bullying is an attempt to exert social power. Bullying is not the result of the bully’s lack of understanding about right and wrong, or their lack of empathy. Quite often a bully is conflicted between his desire for power and his empathy. It’s not that a bully doesn’t understand or feel empathy, it’s just that his desire for social power is stronger.
Social power is increased when a child shows disregard for the opinions of adults. Grade school children are uncertain about who they are, and there is nothing cooler to their peers than a child who shows that he not only doesn’t need the approval of adults but is unafraid of their opinions or outrage.
Consequently, there are generally two effective approaches to handling bullying. One is to consequence the bully and the other is to coach the bullied. The biggest mistake adults make is to intervene by lecturing the bully or otherwise telling him how his or her actions are wrong, bad, shameful, or disapproved of. Berating or lecturing the bully in front of his peers is particularly ineffective as it provides a perfect platform for the bully to display social status and power.
So what to do with Aiden and Noah?
I suggested the mom start by coaching her son in effective ways to handle the situation. Ask him to look out for the first signs of the bullying and when he sees it going that way he should say to his friend, “I don’t want you hitting me. If you hit me I won’t play with you.” Then if his friend does hit him, he should immediately tell the adult who’s at the house that he wants to go home or he wants his friend taken home.
Sara asked me if she should sit Noah down and tell him that she knows about the bullying and that it isn’t okay and I told her no.
There are two problems with Sara, not Aiden, confronting Noah about his bullying. First, it undermines the power of Aiden by demonstrating that he must rely on his mom’s power and can’t assert his own and it denies him the opportunity to assert that power himself. Second, it gives status to Noah’s actions by allowing him to flaunt his opposition to Aiden’s mom’s wishes and approval, inadvertently increasing Noah’s social power.
Then Sara asked me if she should talk to Noah’s mom and have her talk to Noah about his behavior. My answer was no. Again this will increase Noah’s status and show Aiden’s lack of power and status. If she does talk with Noah’s mom it should be to ask for her support of Aiden as he negotiates this problem while specifically asking her not to talk to her son.
This way Aiden can exercise the power of following through with what he said he would do. When Aiden comes to either adult he should be coached to say simply, “I want to go home now” or “I need you to take Noah home now.” And the adults should honor his request immediately without questioning him or reproaching Noah.
The other effective approach to bullying is hard to do in this situation since the boys are always playing alone when it happens. However, in other situations I would advise the adults to stay close and within eyeshot when possible and intervene with an immediate action consequence that lowers social power. Telling the bully to take a break for five minutes away from other children, without discussing with them why, can be a good way to do this. Once the adult says why, or what the bully did was wrong, they inadvertently increase the status of the bully.
My wife told me about a teacher she had as a child who insisted that any child he caught bullying wear a big pink bow for the rest of the day. While I’d never recommend this kind of shaming, her teacher clearly understood the root cause of bullying and attempted to counter it with something that diminished social power and status.
As we move forward in our attempt to eliminate the growing epidemic of bullying it’s essential that we respond with more than simple outrage and moralizing for the bully and empathy for the bullied. Our responses must consider why it’s happening and which actions will undermine, or strengthen, the true motivations for it.
By: Joe Newman
A passive tantrum is when a child feigns inability or lack of understanding in order to avoid difficulty, frustration or effort.
Jackson was an eight-year-old who was very inconsistent in his ability to focus and complete most class work. Most of the time he sauntered slowly through his assignments and needed constant prompting to stay on task or he would slowly drift into doodling on the sides of his papers, playing with something in his desk or talking quietly to the boy next to him. When prompted by Ms. Gibson (his teacher) he would often tell her he didn’t know what to do next or he didn’t understand, despite his apparent understanding only a few minutes before. Because Jackson showed difficulty comprehending social interactions and communications and had some difficulty making friends, he was diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum.
Ms. Gibson noticed that when Jackson was excited about an assignment he readily understood her communication, remembered the directions, and moved through the class work at a good pace without assistance.
One morning, when Jackson had been sauntering through his class work at a particularly leisurely pace, Ms. Gibson decided to see how much he was actually capable of. During the lesson right before lunch the students had been given about 25 minutes in which to write three sentences. Jackson had only finished writing one.
When the bell rang for lunch and Ms. Gibson excused the class she called Jackson over to her desk, “I need you to finish your last two sentences before you go to lunch.” A moment later Jackson went to his cubby got his lunch and brought it to his desk. Ms. Gibson saw this and said, “Jackson, maybe you didn’t understand, but you can’t have your lunch until you finish those two sentences.” A minute later she heard his bag rustling and saw that Jackson was taking out his sandwich. She walked over to him, placed her hands on his sandwich, and said, “I can see you really want to eat your lunch. However, you won’t be able to have your lunch until you’ve finished writing your two sentences so I’m going to put your lunch on my desk till you’re finished.” She took his sandwich, put it back in the bag and sat it on her desk.
Jackson sat without saying anything for a few moments. Then he picked up his pencil and began writing. Forty-five seconds later he had finished writing his two sentences (a task that on a good day might have taken him 5 minutes). He showed his paper to Ms. Gibson and said, “Can I go to lunch now?” And she gave him his lunch and he left the room.
From that day forward Ms. Gibson shifted her expectation of what Jackson was capable of. She set natural consequences for not completing work she thought he might be capable of and created frustration around those behaviors she felt Jackson could change when motivated. She began to assume understanding and ability where before she had assumed inability and insisted that he complete more work independently. And in the month that followed, the amount of class work that Jackson would complete in a day almost doubled.
I see children like Jackson in every classroom I visit. Children who have learned to camouflage their actual abilities in order to avoid frustration and difficulty and assert power and control over adults. This is the passive tantrum.
In a culture where parents have been taught to empower their children in every way possible, we need to be aware that children will find more creative ways to assert this power, even if it means feigning inability. Add to this the fact that parents and teachers are taught to be constantly on the lookout for signs of a disorder so as to intervene as early as possible. Consequently, parents and teachers are more likely to assume inability and react by accommodating, rather than frustrating, these behaviors and many children quickly learn that a passive tantrum is an effective way to avoid difficulty and assert control.
When the new statistics came out in March about the sharp rise in children who are being diagnosed as on the Autism Spectrum I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of these children were children like Jackson who had learned (and could therefore unlearn) the patterns of the passive tantrum.
By: Joe Newman
Our boys are in trouble. They are falling behind girls academically, socially, and psychologically. Consider the following:
• Boys are 30% more likely to drop out of school before graduation.
• Girls outperform boys at all levels of schooling, from elementary to graduate programs.
• Boys are 11% less likely to get a B.A. and 10% less likely to get a graduate degree than girls are.
• Boys make up 2/3 of special education programs.
• Boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed and medicated for ADHD.
There has been a confluence of cultural shifts responsible for this dangerous trend, a sort of perfect storm that is ravaging the psyches of our boys. The shifts fall into one of three categories:
Shifts in what our boys do with their free time, shifts in our schools, and shifts in the parenting. Understanding these three areas will point us in the direction of how we can take practical steps to save our boys.
First, boys are spending a lot of their free time playing video games and watching porn on the internet.
• By age 21 boys have spent an average of 10,000 hours gaming, 2/3rds of that in isolation.
• The average boy watches 50 porn clips per week.
The result of this is that boys are developing “arousal addictions” and they are developing minds that seek constant change, novelty, excitement, and arousal. This makes them unprepared for classrooms that are predominantly interactively passive, static, and analog in nature. It also makes it more difficult for them to develop real relationships which build gradually and subtly (from Philip Zimbardo: The demise of guys? – http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/zimchallenge.html).
Next, the culture of our schools is increasingly alienating boys.
• Boys are expelled 3 times as often as girls.
• They are suspended 2.5 times as often.
• They are 2.75 times as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability.
• They are 3.24 times as likely to be diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.
Ali Carr-Chellman of Penn State attributes the above to three factors. First there is a “zero tolerance” policy toward weapons or violence. This is often translated into not only a ban on real and toy weapons but also writing about these things or about topics that seem destructive or violent in nature. Second, there is an appalling lack of male role models in our elementary schools. Ten years ago 14% of elementary school teachers were male. Today that number has dropped to 7%. And third, there has been a compressing of our children’s curriculum in essence making “kindergarten the new second grade”. The effect being that teachers are under pressure to move children quickly through the curriculum and there is much less tolerance for the child who is active and needs to move (predominantly boys).
Finally, in the last 30 years, our parenting culture has shifted from an emphasis on raising children who respect their parents to raising children who respect themselves. Consequently, our children are more confident, assertive, and willful. Add to this that the ways in which parents deal with conflict has shifted to using more and more communication and explaining instead of action consequences; the result is children who are stronger but more difficult to control. This lack of effective boundaries also stunts a child’s capacity for intimacy and promotes feelings of anger and isolation. (For more on this see my book Raising Lions or my blog ‘The Beautiful Tyrant’.)
Add these three factors together and we can see how boys are slowly being marginalized at our schools and consequently within our culture.
Here are some practical steps parents can take to bring back our boys:
• Move all computers into the public areas of the house. This will prevent a lot of your children’s ability/desire to watch porn. And use a porn filter to make it more difficult when you’re not home.
• Place a limit on video gaming time. Between 2 to 4 hours a week at most. Let your child choose how to divvy up the time.
• Encourage activities that aren’t virtual: Building projects, theater, Cub & Boy Scouts, sports and playing outside.
• Watch the TED talk by Gever Tulley “5 dangerous things you should let your kids do” then do these with your sons.
• Advocate for, and encourage, your sons to write about and express what they find interesting, even if it involves weapons, battles, and things being blown up.
• Learn to set action consequences instead of giving information in response to problem behavior.
• Create real jobs for your children to do that support the daily functioning of your home. This goes beyond traditional chores to include learning to make dinner, changing light bulbs, doing dishes or laundry, spending a day painting the kitchen with Mom and/or Dad. This can contribute greatly to your child feeling a sense of responsibility and connection to his immediate community.
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators, and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.