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I Got Another Puzzle For You*

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Software has been developed to assist school principals in policing the online behavior of students; online behavior outside of school facilities and hours that is. Pointing out the folly of such a pursuit or the obscene waste of resources of such an endeavor is disheartening. As our public education system is eroding in rigor and well roundedness, do we really need yet another distraction? At what point are we Willy Wonka warning of yet another bad decision with hushed weary intonations of; “No. Stop. Don’t”?

The notion that a child’s behavior outside of school is the school’s business/problem is absurd. Unless the school is part of an orphanage it is not the school’s problem. The very idea that there could ever be any software program that could police all the children, in all electronic realms is simply science fiction. Children do stupid stuff. Kids can be mean. How they do this stuff is beside the point. Generations ago principals did not police finished basements, railroad tracks, bowling alleys and soda fountains. No doubt some principals at some point have cleaned graffiti off a bathroom wall, but they didn’t crouch in a corner ready to pounce upon the scribe (or at least I hope they didn’t.) Most of us of voting age were either bullied, a bully or a mix of the two at one point or another. It’s what kids do. Siblings torment siblings, classmates tease classmates, and kids terrorize neighbors (Boo Radley anyone?) It’s not nice, it’s nothing any adult is proud of, but it is part of growing up.

The issue is how children and the adults around them respond to such goings on. Bullying and extreme response to bullying both come from the same place; insecurity. Children are trying to find their way in the world and to feel some sense of control. A bully feels better about him or herself when they lord over someone. Being bullied feels crappy but should not feel like the end of the world. It becomes the end of the world when the bullying is unrelenting and perpetrated by many OR when the bullied is fragile. Fragility can take many guises but should be recognizable to parents. A fragile child does not have close (age appropriate) friends, reacts disproportionately to disappointment, and demonstrates excessive anxiety or (inward or outward) rage. Children who have trouble connecting to their world around them can be devastated by the sense that their world hates them. Children, particularly fragile children, are best served by having their world expanded. Multiple social networks (e.g., scouts, dance class, religious school, relatives, etc.) are an insurance policy against ostracization. Feeling good about one area of his/her life can be the light at the end of the tunnel for a bullied child.

The very idea that a principal should spend money and time trying to police the (often elusive) behavior of children is absurd. If there is that kind of time and money available perhaps we could get the arts back into the school? For decades arts, particularly theater, has been used with vulnerable populations to explore issues of empathy and self-esteem. Prisons and juvenile detention centers have changed lives with their theater arts programs. Children engaged in writing or visual arts projects learn about each other and find common ground. A school experience not based on physical agility or extroversion creates a more realistic environment for children. (Few adults have to make their way through every weekday by being popular.) Bullying and extreme response to bullying is about a response to lack of control. Adding more external control (which has no hope of being effective) completely misses the mark. Strong children are not built with surveillance systems. Strong children are built by a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Schools can play a part in that but to do so they need to focus on education not on in loco parentis.

*Oompa Loompa Song (1971) – Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

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Posted by on October 29, 2013 in Childhood, Education

 

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Mom and Pop Cop

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Nobody wants to (or can) police his or her child. From the moment they’re born children discover how to manipulate the world around them. The first thing a human discovers is that crying often results in having one’s belly filled. As children get older they (hopefully) learn more sophisticated means to get what they want. From a very young age they determine which parent is good for which needs. They also learn what information to hide to avoid unwanted repercussions. It is a very useful and normal developmental process. However it takes a crafty and confident parent to oversee such goings on. Children should be allowed their privacy and some secrets. It is only when there are signs of harm to self or others that all bets are off.

Hiding dangerous behavior is normal but not acceptable. Kids wrestling with eating disorders will go to great lengths to hide the effects and the behavior. Rarely will a kid come home and announce; “Guess what new drug I tried today?!” The same is true for proclamations of; “I totally humiliated a kid in gym today!” No, as we discussed above, kids are pretty savvy in getting what they want. And what most of them want is to not get in trouble. There’s no kid in the world (save a diagnosed sociopath) who does not know that being mean is bad. But kids are human and adults in training and as such are very susceptible to temptation. That is why they will drink (at all or too much), engage in dangerous stunts, sniff household products, develop food issues, etc. The world can feel out of control and very big to a child. Engaging in myopic behaviors is a way to gain control and shrink one’s world. Bullying is one harmful way to do just that. Bullying, unlike other alarming behaviors is not about self-harm. Bullying is a means of controlling one’s world. The bully lords over a created contained reality. There are leaders, followers and victims; and the players often change roles with lightning speed. There is no way that all parents can know what their children are doing at all times. Even parents glued to the side of their child cannot know what is going on inside their little heart and soul. No teacher or school administrator can know what is going on with every child at every moment. The first step is simply to accept this.

However once an adult does know what is going on it is the adult’s problem. Quite simply preventing a child from harming him or herself or others is one of the reasons parents (or guardians) were invented. By now we’ve all heard stories of parents of bullies or bullied who knew what was happening and did not take draconian measures. No doubt they intervened in some manner, but they did not stop it. The most glaring examples are those that involve cyber bullying. To not confiscate devices and disable accounts is tantamount to doing nothing. A Florida sheriff agrees, in theory, with this premise. Sheriff Judd did a little arresting. He grew so outraged that the parents of two bullies did not confiscate devices but instead insisted that their children’s accounts had been hacked, that he arrested them; the children that is. And that’s where Sheriff Judd and I would disagree. I’m not sure anyone in this very tragic case (the bullied killed herself) should be arrested. But if anyone should be legally held accountable it should be the adults who knew of the behavior and tried to cover it up. It’s a bit blithe to declare that “kids will be kids,” but there is some serious truth to that adage. It is not an excuse it is an explanation. Children do really stupid things, it’s how they learn and grow. It is also why they are assigned adults.

There is something terribly chilling about the long arm of the law stepping in for lax parenting. Maybe there is an explanation as to why these girls were allowed to be typing vitriolic Facebook posts taking credit for their (7th grade) classmate’s suicide. It’s difficult to imagine what it would be but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t exist. The sheriff was not interested in any explanation (understandably.) His primary concern was the of the children’s lack of remorse and their potential ability to continue victimizing. He rushed into arresting the (12 and 14 year-old) girls before completing the investigation. It is a very unfortunate means to an end. What these kids need is some empathy training based counseling and aggressive parenting. Neither of which is going to happen while locked up. Couldn’t a more sophisticated penal system order the parents to confiscate all devices and accounts and attend parenting classes? A judge could threaten parents with incarceration if they did not comply. Arresting children is rarely a solution for anything. They’ve been charged with stalking which would suggest that the parents of bullied children everywhere should/could be filing restraining orders and accusing bullies of stalking. I don’t know if anyone wants that to happen, but it’s good to have options. There is a mighty fine line to not cross when it comes to blaming parents for their children’s behavior. But there are also very clear-cut cases of parents being complicit in their children’s wrongdoing. We are sophisticated enough to discern between the two. Kids will be kids and hopefully parents will be adults.

 
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Posted by on October 16, 2013 in Childhood, Well-Being

 

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The Mayor, The Giant & The Bad Smell

green giant

What does New York City, frozen green beans & deodorant have in common? Stumped? They are all backing self-esteem campaigns for kids. What is a self-esteem campaign, you ask? Well, NYC, Green Giant & Secret are splashing out on media that lets kids know they are good enough gosh darn it. There are subtle differences in the campaigns however. The beans and roll-on focus is on bullying, and NYC is on the side of positive body image.

Mayor Bloomberg is telling girls he loves them just the way they are. This $330,000 initiative is partly a visual campaign exalting girls of all shapes and colors and a fitness program. Mixed message aside, the point is to combat the imagery with which girls are daily confronted. The Giant & deodorant on the other hand are focused on victims of bullying. Their’s seems a much more bland campaign with the goal of prompting conversation. (Is anyone not talking about bullying these days?!) What these three initiatives have in common are targeting the victim.

None of this bullying propaganda deals with the bully. Green Giant implores parents to; “Help Her Stand Up To Bullying.” Interestingly, bullying almost by definition, suggest more than a one-on-one experience. The bullies are almost always plural and the bullied is most definitely singular. (That’s why it works!) Simple math would suggest that more bean buying parents have a bully at their table than a victim. Forgetting the misguided calculation for a moment; what in the world does it mean to “stand up to a bully?” How is it helpful to throw such platitudes around? The way to combat bullying is to grow strong children. Children who feel confident and secure do not bully. Children who are told (through words and deeds) that they are simply the best build arrogance not self-esteem. Strength comes from mastering challenges not from trophies and ribbons. All children want to be liked (and hopefully grow out of that weakness by the time they’re parents.) It is perfectly natural for a child to crumble from bullying. As long as that child has friends, interests and activities outside of the bullying vortex they should be fine. But suggesting that he/she is somehow at fault is not fine.

A (meager) $330,000 campaign aimed at convincing girls they’re beautiful is also not fine. This drop in the bucket is ridiculous at best and patronizing at worst. Girls are raised in an overt feminized, and sexualized environment today. They are swathed in pink and glitter and bombarded with objectifying imagery. There are high-heeled shoes in toddler sizes now. Perhaps a campaign encouraging parents to turn off the television, stop buying celebrity magazines and get a little more gender neutral would have an impact. (Surrounding little girls with princess narratives and imagery is not terribly empowering.) Trying to grow strong girls in a climate of hair extensions, false eyelashes, silicone, twerking and botox is not easy. A subway poster or youtube video isn’t really gonna change much of anything. Particularly if they get off the subway and are confronted with softly pornographic posters in the station and above ground.

I don’t doubt everyone’s good intentions, but nothing short of being all in is going to work here. Focusing on the victims not only sends the wrong message but is simply not effective. If the bean people really want to be a meaningful voice in the bully conversation how about a graphic novel-esque serial of the Jolly Green Giant instigating an online attack against Sprout? This comic strip could illuminate the weakness and insecurity of the Giant and Sprout could demonstrate coping skills. If NYC is worried about the body image of its smallest female residents, perhaps Mayor Bloomberg could hire models to do before and after photos? Children could see the smoke and mirrors for themselves. At the end of the day it’s really hard to combat the 24/7 buzz. Girl children have never had so many negative messages and role models. There are so many ways and so many chances for girls to be objectified. There are new ways (every day) for bullies to hide and perpetrate their self-medicating ways. We (the grown-ups) created this and we can fix it. There isn’t one answer, it’s more of a collective of measures. Children have different needs and parents are in the best position to address them. One method that will never work, however, is to blame the victim.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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Blaming The Messenger

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Human beings do stupid things; in fact we’re kinda known for it. We are impulsive, petty and opportunistic. (We are also all kinds of wonderful things but those aren’t what get us in trouble.) We make bad choices particularly in our youth. It’s why parents and sealed criminal records were invented. We tend to get better at staying out of trouble and accruing regrets as we age. But if we are doing any kind of living, mistakes will be made.

Recently there’s been some chatter about jerry-rigging the repercussions of our bad choices. This post-behavior regulating centers on the internet. You know, the internet, that thing that apparently not only has changed how we communicate and access information but has changed the very core of human behavior. Not. Nothing about human behavior has changed. The fact that bad decisions can now live forever and be accessed by all has changed. But people have not just discovered; lying, bullying or taking nude photos. Having a naked image of oneself has always been tricky (there’s a reason that prostitutes were often hired by painters.) Since the invention of photography a woman’s (it’s almost always a woman) life could be upended in later years by the discovery of racy photos. Many an aspiring actress has had to survive having early “modeling” photos published upon her newfound fame. The internet didn’t invent disseminating naked pictures. Nor did it create the motive to do so.

The internet did also not invent bullying, or the incentive to do so. It is tempting to say otherwise as reports of bullying have grown as internet usage has. Causation and correlation are very different. Sales of ice cream increase at the same time that sex crimes increase. Eating ice cream does not cause an increase in sex crimes, but both behaviors do happen in warmer weather. The internet has grown in popularity as our lives have become much more external. Our children’s first photos now happen in utero (or pee stick.) Those photos are shared with the world. Our children now “graduate” kindergarten and those photos are shared with the world. They are taught from the very beginning that life occurs with an audience in place. Every action, or inaction is captured in still or moving image. Life is a performance and therefore far more external than it once was. It is challenging to develop a strong sense of self (and hence esteem) when so little is done independently or internally. It can happen, but it is difficult. A shaky sense of self is a breeding ground for bullying. Strong, confident people do not bully. Children with parents who are in control, strong, authoritative and present, know there’ll be repercussions for their nasty behavior. The reported rise in children committing suicide as a result of bullying is sobering. Children with a strong sense of self will be miserable when bullied. But children with an internal life will turn off the computer (as instructed by a parent) and refuse to look at the nastiness. A child with a sense of self will find other outlets and activities outside of the bullying sphere. Do adults have to pay closer attention? Absolutely, but it’s not the internet that’s causing this behavior.

It’s not the internet that causes people to make false claims about products or services. Fake reviews have existed since there’s been something to review. (“The Epic of Gilgamesh is a must read!!!!!”) Even legitimate reviews are manipulated to sell. Open any old-fashioned print newspaper and you’ll see adverts with blurbs unrecognizable to the reviewer. It’s always been a buyer beware world. Unless a review is authored by a trusted source, it’s safe to assume it’s not all that reliable. Do we really need laws to try and regulate fake reviews on the internet? If it was even possible to regulate false claims (and it’s not) why focus on the internet? There are people promising me instant weight loss, better skin, teeth and hair every minute on television. My newspaper is filled with press releases posing as articles, blatantly selling products, people or places. When did being discerning become something we can regulate?

The internet and social media have changed the speed and range of our communication. Globally we have access to information and entertainment previously unimagined. It’s a little bit archive, a splash of Town Square, a news ticker and an entertainment center. Many people simply have no frame of reference for something so expansive and it is tempting to anthropomorphize technology. It’s a fool’s errand to regulate human behavior on the internet. Technology is ever changing and people will find ways around any awkward measure to regulate. Teaching our children (and reminding ourselves) that nude photos can be embarrassing, bullying is a pitiful behavior of the weak, and liars usually get caught would serve us better.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Words Can’t Bring You Down*

“What are your thoughts on bullying?” I was asked the other day.  There’s no simple answer is there?  While not a fan of bullying, I also don’t think it’s the black plague.  We need to be careful not to label all behavior that is less than kind as bullying.  Labeling behavior as bullying does not encourage conversation and understanding but leads to “zero tolerance” policies that can have illogical and arbitrary consequences.

I don’t know if incidents of bullying have increased.  How can we know when we’re not entirely clear what bullying is?  Here’s what bullying is not; having a disagreement, calling another person a name, or excluding someone from an activity.  Bullying certainly is causing a person harm, waging an ongoing campaign of physical intimidation, and inciting ostracization or teasing.  As soon as children are old enough to engage socially (around 3 years old) they begin to create groups.  Even in kindergarten children begin to identify whom to tease.  Their target can appear to be a mirror image of the group.  They are not necessarily weaker than others.  They may be singled out for the brand of sandwich bag they bring to school.  This is how it can start.

There have always been (and undoubtedly always will be) children who behave dreadfully to other children.  There are children who are not emotionally well, and are capable of simply inconceivable acts.  But then there are children, who are, well they are children.  They show poor judgment and above all, live for the acceptance of their peers.  They find themselves caught up in a behavior that fills them with shame and even more shamefully, a little pride.

What concerns me is how children are handling being the target of less than kind behavior.  I worry that children are reacting in intense and fatal ways.  A child committing violence (to themselves or others) because they felt bullied, is not normal.  Even for an adolescent.  I worry that all children are not as strong as they once were.  (For really what is a bully but one who feels inadequate?)  I worry that we have cultivated a generation (or more) whose lives are more external than internal, leaving them feeling fragile and teetering when the world no longer applauds.

When we hold graduation ceremonies for preschoolers, kindergartners, or hell, anything below high school, we are sending an esteem-crushing message to our children: “Doing the bare minimum may be your greatest accomplishment, yeah for you!”  We are also teaching them that their worth is intrinsically tied to applause.  Every activity now has an audience.  When they play, their parents are on the sidelines or actually coaching them along.  Every recital is videotaped and shown.  In short, their lives are excruciatingly public from their first framed sonogram.

There is no internal strength that is derived from an external life (just look at the personal life of any celebrity past or present.)  Self-esteem is not cultivated through “Best Snack Provider” trophies or “Honor Student” bumper stickers.  Self-esteem is created by the self.  It is grown through mastery.  When a child navigates new terrain, on his/her own, he/she glows with the accomplishment.  When a child problem solves or conquers a fear, they grow stronger.  Praise (real or empty) does not create self-esteem, independence does.  Praising a preschooler for “good waving!” is the gateway to a lifetime of empty praises.  Children are not stupid.  They know the difference.  We build strong children by encouraging increasing amounts of independence.

A child who feels a true sense of worth, who feels they are good at something, is much less likely to pick on someone else.  He/she is also much less likely to be devastated by being picked on.  We need to take (physical and/or psychological) violence against children very seriously.  We need to equally take seriously how our children are responding to such acts.  We are a culture that loves to treat symptoms and ignore causes.  How do I feel about bullying? I feel that the stronger (adults) need to acknowledge and redress their cultivation of the weaker.

* Beautiful: Linda Perry (2002)

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2012 in Childhood

 

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