A Holistic Perspective on Bullying

Recently while hanging out at my local Barnes and Noble, I noticed a display near the kids’ section. It was about “No Name-Calling Week,” which happens to be the week of January 23, and had a bunch of books for children about bullying.

At first, I was skeptical, as I usually am about well-meaning but generally misinformed interventions like these. But when I actually checked out the books, I noticed that they weren’t just about bullying. I bought two of them for my little brother, and they were called Stick Up For Yourself and Speak Up and Get Along.

Before you drown in a puddle of gag reflex, let me assure you that I actually read a good amount of both of these books before I bought them, and I’m proud to say that they are absolutely 100% Psych Major/Former Kid/Big Sister-approved.

More specifically, the books basically consisted of kid-friendly cognitive-behavioral therapy. There were chapters about understanding and naming your feelings, expressing yourself effectively, and figuring out what your dreams are. Relatively little of it was actually directly relevant to bullying; the focus seemed to be children’s mental health in general.

As I wrote in a previous post, our culture mostly ignores mental health in children unless they’re already seriously distressed and/or problematic, in which case it attacks the problem furiously, if ineffectively (i.e. ADHD, alcohol/drug use, and delinquency). In that post, I discussed my ten-year-old brother’s skewed worldview and how it’s been shaped by the way he’s treated by other kids, and how his issues probably won’t be taken seriously until/unless they develop into something that’s listed in the DSM.

But these books are brilliant in that they approach the problem of bullying in a holistic way–by illuminating the ways in which kids would be happier and healthier if they were taught more effective and positive ways of thinking and interacting.

I was bullied as a kid. I’m not nearly masochistic enough to start describing exactly how or how much, although I can say that it wasn’t as severe as it was for many other people. I don’t think it affected my life all that much; although I’m sure depression can be a consequence of childhood bullying, I’m pretty sure my genetics and inborn temperament took care of that on their own.

But even from an early age, I was curious about why people act the way they do. Although I’m certainly not always nice, I’ve never felt the urge to ostracize someone, publicly humiliate them, or spread rumors about them. Some people, though, do have that urge. Why?

Of course, parents, teachers, and psychologists have been trying to answer this question for decades now. The common assumption used to be that bullies are awkward, ugly loners who mess with other kids to feel powerful. Nowadays, the explanations have tended towards the sociological side, with Rachel Simmons’ Odd Girl Out hypothesizing that, at least among girls, bullying is caused by a societal stigma against expressing anger openly and is usually done by popular girls with plenty of social capital.

The real answer, I think, lies somewhere between these two perspectives. It’s clear that most bullies are socially skilled and aware, at least to a certain extent, or else they wouldn’t be able to exert such influence. (Would you really feel that hurt if some loser came up and called you ugly? I’d laugh.) However, there has to be something missing from these kids’ lives if they turn to making others miserable.

A happy, self-confident person of any age has no need to put others down. I think it’s time that we recognize that even young children can and do have mental health issues–not necessarily ones that need medication or therapy, but ones that deserve attention and respect from their families.

That’s why I bought my brother those books. I hope that they’ll be a good starting point to help him figure out how to start looking at the world in a healthier way and how to talk to us about how he feels. We can’t help kids without listening to them–and resisting the urge to respond with “Just ignore it,” “Just get over it,” and “Just calm down.”

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Learning Racism on the NYC Subway

I spent this past week in New York City with my mom and little siblings, who are six and nine years old, respectively. Aside from a few times that they were too young to remember, this was their first time in the city and they had a great time.

On our last day in New York, however, they were confronted with a situation that they would never have encountered back home in Ohio.

We had just gotten on the subway in Queens to go to Manhattan. The train was full, but my  brother and sister found seats next to an older lady. My mom and I, meanwhile, stood facing them.

As my siblings sat down, the older lady mumbled something in their general direction. “I’m watching you,” she growled at them.

None of us paid much attention to this at first. I took out my phone and started reading on it, just as many other commuters on the train were doing.

And then the older lady started saying something that made me consciously notice her race–African American–for the first time.

“Are you takin’ pictures of me? You takin’ pictures of me? I can call the police on you for that. I’ll blow your brains out. Look at your ugly white face.”

I calmly ignored the diatribe, as is the unspoken code of conduct on the New York City subway. It’s impossible to spend even a day in the city without encountering at least one person who is drunk, high, schizophrenic, or otherwise in a state that makes them spew nonsense. The thing to do is to just let it go.

My mom and my siblings took note as the lady kept going.

“You bunch of white trash. I’m watchin’ all of you. You and you and you.” She gestured at my brother and sister.

She kept going in this vein right up until the train reached her station. She stood up and picked up her purse. “Finally I never have to see your ugly white faces again,” she said, and left the train.

I sat down in her seat next to my siblings, glanced out the window, and saw the lady walk off. I turned back around and relaxed. As the train was about to pull out of the station, I heard a thud on the window behind me. My siblings and I, startled, turned around and saw that the lady had come back and hit the window where we were sitting.

This experience made quite an impression on my brother and sister. They talked about it to all the friends and family we saw that day, and they were still talking about it on the plane home the next day. I tried to tell them that some people are strange or disturbed and say weird things, but that these people are not the majority. I’m not sure what they thought about it, but I’m afraid that they’re too young to consciously, coherently think about it at all.

As a young adult who purposefully tries to stay educated about race relations and the history thereof, I can’t say that this experience changed my opinion about anything. I’ve met and been close to enough black people to know that most would never say such things–just as most white people would never say such things to them.

But my siblings have not. In the leafy Ohio suburb where my family lives, diversity is almost nonexistent. We’re one of very few Jewish families here, for instance, and when I Iived here I knew only a handful of black people and no Latino/a people. (Asians are probably the only minority that’s well-represented here.)

This trip to New York was probably my siblings’ first experience with seeing such a tremendous diversity of races and ethnicities (not to mention orientations and gender identifications). The fact that one of their only verbal interactions with a stranger in New York happened this way can’t be a good thing.

Furthermore, unlike my little siblings, I’ve read enough about race relations to understand the circumstances that cause people to develop the views that the lady on the subway had. Perhaps she’s watched friends and family members being unjustly stopped and searched by the police. Perhaps she’s been denied housing or other needs because of her skin color. Perhaps she’s witnessed white people refusing to sit down next to her on the subway at all. Perhaps her calling us “ugly” is a response to a mass media that depicts whiteness as the only variety in which beauty can come.

I know all of this and more, but my siblings don’t, and they’re way too young for me to try to explain it to them. With all the difficulties they face because of learning English as a second language, having a culturally nonconforming family, and, sometimes, even simply being Jewish, the idea that someone might view them the way they view kids who taunt them for their accent or curly hair, is probably a confusing one. They don’t know what it means to be “white” in America. I don’t think they’ll know for a long time.

And that’s the real tragedy. If these two kids develop the unjustified fear of black people that many white people have (even if it’s only subconscious), it won’t be from the surrounding culture, as many would assume. It’ll be from a concrete experience that happened when they visited New York City for the first time and encountered people who don’t look like them. They’ll remember feeling trapped on the subway as a woman they don’t know threatened to “blow their brains out.” They’ll remember being told that their skin color makes them ugly. They’ll remember that the woman was black, because she pointed out that they were not.

And so, racism is perpetuated. Even if my siblings end up forgetting this particular experience, there may be others, and there will be many other kids who encounter a situation like this one. My brother and sister weren’t to blame for this woman’s distress, but to expect her to “rise above” it would be presumptuous. Whatever happened that made her say those things is real.

For once, I have no solution to propose. My purpose in sharing this story was only to illuminate the importance of teaching children how to empathize and how to keep themselves from forming stereotypes–much easier said than done.

They should also be taught more than just that slavery “happened” and is now over (if only race relations were really that simple). The woman on the subway was a racist and she was wrong, but people don’t become racists in a vacuum.

I can only hope that when my siblings are old enough to understand all of this, they will still be open-minded enough to learn it.

Obama the Patriarch

I usually stay away from commenting on Obama’s presidency because, to be honest, I was just a kid during all the previous presidencies I’ve lived through and really have no comparison to make.

However, a recent statement by Obama has caused me to come out of my apolitical cave and rage. After the FDA made a recommendation that Plan B One-Step, a form of emergency birth control that is available over the counter to anyone over 17, be available to girls under 17 without a prescription as well, Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s secretary of health and human services, overruled the FDA’s recommendation. This is disappointing enough as is, but then Obama came out in support of her and said the following:

“I will say this, as the father of two daughters: I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine….And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drugstore should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect.  And I think most parents would probably feel the same way.”

As usual when I write about women’s issues, I literally don’t even know where to start with this. First, and perhaps most obviously, I don’t understand why we’re having all this conversation about 10- and 11-year-olds. The change would have applied to all girls under 17, and the majority of teenage girls who might need to buy Plan B are not 10 and 11. Try 15 and 16. If Obama and Sebelius are that concerned about 10- and 11-year-olds specifically, they could’ve asked the FDA to recommend allowing only girls 12 and over to get Plan B without a prescription.

Second, and also very tellingly, if the FDA has deemed Plan B safe for over-the-counter use, who are Sebelius and Obama to assume they know better? Sebelius has a BA in political science and an master’s in public administration; Obama has a BA in political science and a law degree. Unlike many cynics, I don’t necessarily doubt that these two have the knowledge and ability to perform their respective jobs, but I would not trust them over the doctors and researchers who staff the FDA when it comes to medical issues.

Third, Obama immediately reveals what this is really about when he says, “as the father of two daughters…” Understandably, Obama would be worried for his two daughters if they were ever in a position to need Plan B. However, for all of the battling that Obama has had to do with the Far Right of this country, he clearly doesn’t seem to realize that many girls don’t have daddies like Obama who would care for them, be able to afford doctors’ appointments, support their right to get an abortion, and guide them through a decision. For many girls, it would be a choice between obtaining Plan B on their own or being shamed, abused, disowned, and/or forced to carry a baby to term.

Finally, I’m disturbed by the ageist and patriarchal notion that young women are somehow incapable of making their own decisions about sexual health. Yes, children need and should have access to guidance from adults. In a perfect world, every girl would be able to go to her parents for help with something like this. But that’s not the world we live in, and we must make do accordingly. Not only has the FDA already determined that Plan B is safe, but, unlike many medications that are available over the counter to children, you can’t overdose on it or otherwise fuck it up–when you buy it, you only get one.

Furthermore, there are other ways to make sure young teens know what they’re doing when it comes to emergency birth control. For instance, mandate pharmacists to provide an option for girls to privately ask them questions about how to use Plan B. Pharmacists know a lot. Why not use them as a resource?

Much has been made of Obama’s failure (or lack thereof) to support women’s rights, and it’s a debate I don’t normally follow because one can really spin it either way. On this issue, however, I would argue that Obama has definitively failed to support women and girls. Instead, he has promoted the antiquated notion that beliefs trump science when it comes to reproductive rights.

Facebooking in Class–Symptom, not Disease

FINALLY I get to use this meme in a serious context.

I think I’m going to have a series of posts criticizing GOOD’s pathetic education section, which is currently failing even harder than my insomniac classmates are at their finals.

This is an older article, but I decided to dig it up and poke fun at it anyway.

This article suggests that having a “15-minute tech break” for each half-hour of class would help students focus because they’d do all their Facebooking in those 15 minutes and then put their phones away.

The people who propose these initiatives seemingly have a complete lack of understanding of how young people actually use technology, and for what purpose. For instance:

Rosen says his tech break concept “works amazingly.” For every half-hour of focused work, he recommends allowing a 15-minute tech break. Once a students sees that nothing is happening on Facebook or send a friend that critical text message—they’re able to refocus, he says.

That’s not the way Facebook and texting work, though. You don’t just check it and then forget about it. You like to be on it. What’s to stop people from having their phones out under their desks outside of the “tech break?”

Furthermore, I don’t see how this is even doable. This would increase class time by a whopping 50%—ludicrous when everyone, both students and teachers, are already severely overbooked. (In fact, that may be why students use their phones in class to begin with.)

In addition, like it or not, multitasking is here to stay. If students are forced to learn how to integrate technology with learning rather than strictly separating the two, they’ll be better equipped to handle modern work environments, where you’re usually required to answer phones/emails/messages while working, and so on.

Finally, I still don’t understand why people see Facebooking/texting in class as some sort of crisis of epic proportions that requires a complete restructuring of the school day. Are students actually becoming dumber? Are their grades dropping? And even if they are, might it be because of much-needed and still-lacking education reforms, and not because of Evil Technology?

I obviously haven’t done research on this (though, by the looks of it, this guy hasn’t either), but I’d guess that Facebooking and texting in class aren’t a cause of distraction–they’re a symptom. Back in the day, kids would doodle or pass notes or just stare into space. These days they text and go on Facebook. What’s the difference? Oh, right, there’s a convenient piece of Evil Technology to blame.

That, ultimately, is the argument that I believe overrules everything else I’ve just said. If the problem is–shocker–not Those Darn Kids but the fact that school is worthlessly boring, then it’s time to have a completely different dialogue. This dialogue will have to be about how to make school both educational and fun and not about how to get Those Darn Kids to do what we want them to do.