The middle school principal hired me to talk to the kids about bullying. (Not a word I like to use as it has come to mean everything and nothing.) Walking through the front doors, I saw student anti-bullying posters and a large felt banner encouraging: "Respect, Kindness, and Social Responsiblity."
A few minutes later I waited in the teacher's lounge for the counselor who would bring me to the auditorium for my student presentation on Real Friends vs the Other Kind. I noticed the clean coffee mugs lined up by the sink, the plate of blueberry muffins on the table, the flowering begonias by the window. Obviously the teachers cared about their school. As I thought about the reason I was called in I noticed a framed quotation on the wall.
"If you’re not modeling what you teach, then you are teaching something else.”
Social aggression is systemic. Put downs, gossip, sarcasm are all pretty much the air we breathe. Yet when we hear about mean-kid behavior we’re all righteously stunned. “They tormented the girl so badly she committed suicide!? Then the perpetrators actually posted more cruel comments on the victim’s FB memorial page!!!?”
Why are we so surprised? Consider what passes for entertainment in our Culture of Cruelty. Consider the tone of public discourse. Consider the disrespect we heap on those who don't share our opinions. Consider the snarkiness we regularly engage in at the office, at the game, at the PTA meeting, in the blogosphere, and in the teacher's lounge. What gives us the right to scratch our heads over the latest example of mean-kid behavior? Wouldn't it be more confounding if our kids turned out to be something other than cruel?
I know it’s uncomfortable imagining that the enemy is us… but we might as well own it because until we do we will continue to fuel the problem of social aggression, online and off. Turning a blind eye, or implying that this nastiness is just “kids being kids” misses the point and blows yet another opportunity to turn the ship around.
Blackberry vines have appeared amongst my roses, choking the life out of my beauties. If I simply curse the vines or pluck a leaf here and there, I won’t stop their spread. I’ve got to get in there on my hands and knees, deal with blackberry thorns and dig out every last damn root. Same applies to bullying. Parents and teachers are responsible for rooting out malevolent behavior between kids whenever we see it, hear about it or sense it. We also have a moral obligation to watch our own mouths and attitudes… all the time. Otherwise, “Respect, Kindness and Social Responsibility” is just a school motto and the dirty truth is that we are teaching the kids something else.