In United States, the movement against bullying is a battle cry: we’re not going to take it. Sites and programs all over the country exist solely to open up discussions about bullying and teach kids how to act with kindness. We are told teach our kids to recognize mean behavior, and we role play with them to teach them what to do.
On the surface, it looks like we want more kindness and less bullying. We cheer for the stories of moral fortitude; Upworthy videos of kindness go viral. Our country has an anti-bullying web site, run by none other than our government – the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
From the StopBullying.gov web site: Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.
There is so much talk about the anti-bullying movement, one would think we would all have evolved to the next level by now. It’s clear that it’s important to our parent citizens that bullying is a bad thing.
It’s telling to see that an alarmingly large number of our population is supporting a political candidate who often calls rivals and media “pathetic” and rants against them publicly, complete with name-calling and character denigration. There is no need call him out by name; he is one of many.
This candidate made several insulting comments about a Fox News host after she asked him why he referred to women as “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs,” and “disgusting animals.”
If that’s the kind of person we are going to elevate to the top office of the country, the role model we hold up to our children and say, “you can be just like him!”, then we have failed.
He’s not the only one, sadly. Across the presidential race, candidates are throwing mud so hard perhaps we should be surprised that no one has reported a concussion.
Galit Breen, author of the anti-cyberbullying guide Kindness Wins, says there is a disconnect between what we say we want and what we accept. “Many of our presidential candidates are choosing to fight people instead of issues and to name call instead of engage in dialogue. In a school setting, these behaviors would be called bullying, at best. We often tell our kids to work hard and be kind so they can aspire to be whomever they want to be; this is a hard line to toe when some of our would-be leaders are behaving in ways that are the opposite of what we are teaching them in school.”
Mothers tell their children they can be anything they want, including president. The leader of the free world. The leader every person in our military is asked to salute. This person who will represent our citizens in meetings around the world. If they are watching and absorbing the climate of the presidential race, they might grow up thinking they must be an abrasive, back-stabbing, claw-over-claw egomaniac to earn that role.
Lest we think that 2016’s race is the worst our country has ever seen, sadly, that’s not the case. Two hundred years ago, our founding fathers weren’t much better. Says 20-year veteran Indiana-based U.S. History teacher Randy Phipps:
“The animosity generated by the campaigns of Adams and Jefferson destroyed their friendship; one of the men who leveled accusations against Jefferson went to jail for slander. Today, there is no such recourse. Jefferson’s inaugural address, considered to be one of the best inaugural speeches, is always praised and highlighted for his attempt to put aside the nastiness of the 1800 election. He tried to move the country forward by stating, ‘We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans,’ a nod to the two leading parties at the time.”
After such a vile election, Congress passed the 12th Amendment, stating that the nominee to get the second-most number of votes would no longer be elected vice president.
When TV became a medium for presidential campaigns in the 20th century, candidates took full advantage of the opportunity to sling the digital mud. Everywhere our children look, there is someone being rude and obnoxious on television or the internet, and we watch blandly, dismissing the behavior with complacency.
Surely, we can’t expect our children to behave with a modicum of civility when the candidates for the leader of our country do not. How can we tell kids to be kind when they see on the news adults running for the office who berate, belittle, exclude, and mock? It’s our own fault for accepting this code of conduct. We have applauded moxie and outspokenness for the sake of outspokenness. We have shown that we believe that kindness is weakness; aggression is strength. The question is: what do we do now?
“Parents often talk to their kids at the dinner table about bullying and assume that the conversation ends there,” says Austin-based family counselor Kirsten Brunner. “I encourage parents to continue the conversation in the family room, on the roads and on the laptop. Calling out every day acts of hatred and bullying allows our children to understand that harassment and name-calling are not isolated to school hallways. It also triggers a conversation about respectful communication and civility. Children are natural anthropologists, continually observing and recording the behaviors of those around them. They might seem like they are absorbed in their play or their video games, but their ears and eyes are tuned into the words and actions of the adults in their life. They pay attention to what their parents watch on TV, how they talk about their friends and how they discuss current events. Through these observations they form beliefs about how they should treat others and deal with conflict.”
Breen adds, “We have to carefully consider what we choose to tell our children about what they’re seeing and hearing from some of our candidates. What we’re seeing—name calling, fighting people versus issues, for example—can be an opportunity to teach the non-example and to give our kids the chance to think critically. But left not discussed and not addressed, it can be a sad show of acceptance of adults not carrying out what we ask our kids to do, which is to be kind, even when we disagree with, or even dislike, someone.”
Do as we say, not as we do.
“Relationships can be harmed by hateful words whether you are a politician or a parent arguing with a spouse,” says Phipps, the history teacher. “What’s very difficult for me as an educator, and as a parent, is to show the consequences. It’s far too easy for kids today to sit behind a computer screen and anonymously say terrible things about someone else with no fear of retribution. In this regard entire reputations are destroyed.”
We watch reality shows consisting of wealthy women being hateful to each other, and millions of people are tuning in to witness the train wreck every day. Apps like Yik Yak allow teenagers to anonymously slam someone without any fear of repercussion, and we are allowing this to continue.
If that’s what we want for our country, let’s own up to it. Otherwise, we’re just paying lip service to the idea of eliminating bullying in our children.
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