Guilty by Association

Today’s paper had a disturbing report about how when immigrant children come to this country they are not prone to violence or bullying. However, the longer they stay here in our U.S. cities, the higher the rate of violence and bullying they exhibit. Experts in the school systems interviewed for this article say that this news is “not surprising” to them.

Not surprising? That we have created a culture where instead of learning kindness and compassion and how to look out for one another, we have taken someone who was not formerly prone to violence and forced them to become violent by associating with our school children? I would hope this would be surprising, but it may offer a sad picture of our current thinking. To survive in many of our city schools, one needs to be violent and angry so that one can protect him- or herself from others who would want to hurt them.

I think we need to ask what’s happening to our children that bullying is a preferred state. Instead of moving to a new country and feeling embraced, children feel as though they have to assert their own strength to avoid being the subject of bullying and ridicule. I firmly believe, from the work I’ve done over the years and reflected in my writings, that people lash out at others because they are missing a foundational sense of “I’m okay” deep down inside. Rather than our children feeling unconditional love from their parents or their teachers, they have to erect a wall of protection so that they can’t be hurt.

It’s not just in our cities, of course. Sometimes the stories I hear from my own children about how they are spoken to by teachers or other school leaders are appalling to me. The sarcasm or anger the teachers display toward the children provides a negative role model. My kids come home and talk to me about it, but many kids do not utter a word; they suffer in silence. Or, when they do come home and report the abuse they are also verbally bullied by their own parents.

I do understand how overwhelming the job of teaching young children must be, but teachers also need to learn how to manage their own stress levels and emotional responses. If the situation is very bad across the board, they should work for change – don’t take it out on the children who are there to learn. And I’ve written before about this, but “punishing” the bullies often doesn’t get at the real root of the problem. Why are they bullies? What has happened in their emotional lives that they feel left with no choice but to lash out at fellow student?

“Kill or be killed” seems to be the emotional mantra that many of our children practice. Instead of looking at it as “We’re all in this together – let’s make the best of it,” it’s more about “who can I lash out at today to secure my spot as the strongest bully around.” Our immigrant children, at least according to this study, watch this and decide that if they are going to fit in and have friends, they’d best follow suit.

As adults, we need to look at the role model we are providing for our children. How tolerant are we of others’ differences? How quick are we to judge or criticize another person? How quickly do we lash out at someone instead of trying to understand them? Be watchful this week of your responses to others. The goal is not to judge yourself or criticize your own behavior, but rather to learn about the image you portray to anyone – child or adult – who may be watching you and learning. If people around you are to be “guilty by association,” what kind of behavior do you want them to display?