By Sarla Thal
Bullying. It’s in the news constantly—the most heartbreaking instances being when young people take their own lives because of who they are.
Bullying is not new. Most adults can recall being teased, made fun of, or excluded at some point in their young lives. If not personally, then we knew someone who was a victim of these behaviors. Or, we may have been the ones doing it. And we still may be experiencing bullying as adults.
Bullying often occurs because of differences that we see in others. From the time we are born, we develop a sense of what is “normal.” The behaviors, practices, beliefs, and even skin color of those around us shape what we think of as normal. If we were raised to think that any characteristics and behaviors that are not the same as ours should be feared or considered inferior, then the propensity to harass or bully those we see as different from us may exist. An individual’s sense of “normal” may include race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, appearance (weight, style of dress, unusual features, etc.), and socioeconomic status.
In schools, bullying frequently occurs when the perpetrator, or bully, feels that he/she has more power than his/her victim, or target, and that what makes the target different is inferior to his/her standard of “normal.” This imbalance of power is one of the characteristics of bullying that distinguishes it from other types of conflict.
True bullying is repetitive negative actions toward another individual, is purposely done to demean or devalue the target, and results in a strong emotional reaction on the part of the target. A bullying incident elicits little emotion on the part of the perpetrator as he/she usually blames the victim for who he/she is—and the perpetrator shows no remorse.
Focusing on the issue of how we promote a mind-set of caring and consideration for others is the intent of this blog. Brain research gives some direction to what might reduce the “dislike for the unlike.” From birth, as neurological connections are developed, the self-identity of a child is based on early imprinting about what is normal to that child. If a child is surrounded by a family that is rigid in its religious belief system, for example, the child may develop the perception that any religious ideas outside of that belief system are unacceptable or inferior. However, if those religious beliefs include an acceptance of others’ beliefs, the child’s perceptions and behaviors toward those who believe differently may be less judgmental and divisive.
Educators cannot control the early imprinting that shapes a child’s self-identity and perceptions of acceptance of others. What educators can do is help children understand the characteristics of their own self-identity and recognize that all children have developed a self-identity based on their own experiences. And the earlier the better!
Activities that help children examine where they come from, their culture, and their beliefs allow them to understand their own self-identity. Having children interact one-on- one with others who are different from them will give them the opportunity to appreciate those differences without negative stereotyping and judgment. The process of providing such activities needs to be ongoing in order to bring about a change in thinking. We did not develop our self-identity based on one or two experiences, but rather on continual input (neurological development) as we grew up.
In order to break the cycle of bullying, children must be taught to develop a caring, thinking attitude. This should be the school’s imperative. It should be part of our regular practice with our students in order to develop an inclusive school environment free of bullying and, ultimately, a more caring, accepting society.
Written by: Sarla Thal