It must be a great feeling of power to be in the “In Crowd.”
Peer pressure is a very strong motivator in children’s group dynamics. Being in a group builds confidence and camaraderie. From an early age, children begin to gravitate to peer groups. Those group members behave according to certain unwritten rules, which are called norms. It starts early in elementary school where kids start saving seats for their friends. It quickly escalates to only letting their clique sit at their table for lunch, use the swings at recess, or sit in a certain part of the bus. Children who don’t recognize these social boundaries are quickly labeled as outcasts. And so the bullying begins.
In upper elementary school, children begin to gravitate to a variety of social cliques. These cliques begin to influence their dress, language, attitudes, and behavior. These groups also provide a sense of empowerment that manifests itself in needing to continuously demonstrate their worthiness for the group. Too many times this display of ‘worthiness’ degenerates into the bullying of others.
Any group or clique can devolve into bullying. Jocks, Preps, Emos (used to be called Punks) all can be bullies. These group stereotypes define themselves by their dress, but more importantly, by the extent of their cruelness to others. When these groups gravitate to bullying they seem to get huge amounts of pleasure from making fun of others. They think they are only “fooling,” as the bullying produces great laughter and joking for their group – at the expense of their victims. If a student becomes an easy target of a group of bullies, there is almost no stopping them. In this way, children who are the victims of bullying can continue to be bullied for their entire school careers, often suffering silent humiliation and getting no help or relief from adults. They learn that telling only makes it worse. They can’t fight back and so they learn to endure their bullying as a fact of their existence.
To change the entire bullying dynamic, I believe we need to do three things:
1. Teach empathy: We need to actively teach our children the concept of empathy and help them to experience the pleasure of channeling their efforts in a positive direction.
2. Give kids a voice: We need to train children to recognize their capacity to be supportive bystanders who can exercise their role as concerned citizens of their school.
3. Make sure school administrators and teachers are educated about bullying: We need to expect all of the adults in a school setting to be aggressive deterrents for all levels of bullying. All school personnel need to learn the warning signs of bullying, and they need to be vigilantly on the lookout for bullying behavior. Check with your child’s school to see what action they are taking to educate their staff.
It is not OK for social groups to terrorize an entire school. Being cool does not have to be at the expense of others.
About Marc J Ladin
Marc is a retired elementary school principal with over 30 years experience in urban and suburban schools in RI and CT. He has presented numerous workshops for children that stress the importance of speaking up and taking responsibility for getting help as the victim of bullying and as the bystander. Marc lives in West Kingston, Rhode Island with his wife and two cats. He is the father of five grown children and he is an avid sailor, potter, gardener, guitar player, and photographer. He has recently published a children’s book on bullying entitled The Playground Bully Blues.