Inoculating Kids Against Meanness

Sending Maxine off to school in First Grade.

When I was a kid, "bullying" was not something we discussed in school. Now you can't walk 20 feet in an elementary school hallway without seeing an anti-bullying message. Overall, the shift has been positive: These campaigns have made us all more aware of the importance of stepping in early and often when school-age meanness gets out of hand.

That said, I have a hard time with the tenor of the conversation sometimes when it comes to minor playground bullying. Particularly when our kids are in elementary school, I think we all need to tear a sheet from Taylor Swift’s playbook and take a moment to just calm down. Although serious bullying does happen, and must be addressed by administrators, you’re just as likely to find cases of overreacting and of rushing to label kids as "bullies" for being, well, pretty normal kids.

Can kids be brutal to other kids? No question. They say and do mean things to each other all the time. But when you look at children's behavior as the tip of the iceberg — meaning there is always something going on under the surface that we can't see — the "bully" label becomes limiting, short-sighted, and even unkind.

The question is: What's going on under the surface?

Our lizard brains at work

The human brain is what's going on.

For tens of thousands of years, our survival depended on our ability to get along in social groups, to be accepted, to be seen as valuable members of our tribes. Although the world has changed, our brains haven't.

When Sam meanly points out that Harry's parents are gay, that's Sam's lizard brain simply trying not to get thrown off the island himself. It has nothing to do with Harry's parents, and everything to do with, say, Sam's inability to run as fast as the other kids. In other words, if Sam didn't feel so shitty during gym class, he might think it's cool as hell that Harry has two dads.

But, of course, not everyone who feels shitty during gym class takes it out on his fellow students, right? If that was the case, elementary schools would be one big blood bath!

So what makes some kids — otherwise really nice kids — say intentionally hurtful things?

When nice kids do mean things

Well, usually it's a physical issue or an emotional one.

Physically, they might be tired or hungry or experiencing some kind of discomfort that is putting them in a crunchy mood. (I can relate.) Emotionally, they might be reacting to feelings of powerlessness, disconnection, or insecurity — all things that move kids into lizard-brain thinking.

Also, and this is important, it's incredibly important that kids have a chance to fully and safely air their feelings, bad and good. No, this isn't always fun for us parents. Sometimes it downright sucks. But the longer those negative feelings stay inside, the more likely they are to leak out in aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior. (I can relate to this, too.)

The late, great author Dorothy Baruch talked about how children who repress their emotions will often "disguise" those emotions by changing their “form or target,” making it more difficult to tie the child’s behavior to its true cause. For example, if Sam is being scolded night after night for not doing his homework — instead of being given a chance to talk about the challenges he's facing — he might refuse to do his chores or throw tantrums (this is changing form), or he might start hitting his siblings or taunting kids at school (this is changing target.)

You can see, then, why overreacting to a child's bullying, without trying to unearth the true cause, will simply force the kid to feel more powerless, repress more emotions, and exhibit more negative behavior.

Teaching kids how to protect themselves

When I wrote my first book, Relax, It's Just God, I thought a lot about bullying.

Maxine was 5 at the time, in kindergarten, and the child of two atheists. She was still deciding what she believed about God, and I couldn't help but worry that Christian kids might tell her that she was going to hell. But then it struck me that if it wasn't threats of hell, it would be something else. She would be teased or taunted over her lack of religion, or she would be teased and taunted over her looks or interests or personality. Some things you can't stop, and a little meanness in the cafeteria is one of them.

So I decided that rather than race toward my anxious thoughts, I would offer a little inoculation.

I sat down and told her that nice kids say mean things sometimes to each other. I told her that they are just trying to make themselves feel better. I explained that a classmate might point and laugh at her because he is so very afraid that if he doesn't, someone will laugh and point at him — and he’s scared of that happening.

We brainstormed some things she might be able to do or say if someone said something hurtful to her, and then we role-played them.

'I don't care!'

I’d say things like, “Your hair is too curly,” or “I hate your dress,” or “I don’t want to play with you.” After each of these remarks, Maxine would summon the attitude of a snotty teenager, look me dead in the eye, and say, “I don’t care.” Then she’d turn around and walk away with a swagger.

Every time she did it, I'd applaud and do some hooting and hollering. She loved it.

After a while, we’d reverse roles, and she’d lob insults at me. (She loved that even more.)

The whole thing was fun and silly and funny. But it was also really effective. She felt empowered and prepared, and I felt confident she could handle herself on the playground.

For years, she considered this her fallback strategy. When she was seven and her cousin, Jack, was 3, he started having some anxiety about entering preschool himself. Maxine didn’t hesitate before offering up her own advice.

“If someone is mean to you,” she told Jack, ” just say, ‘I don’t care!’ and walk away.”

It's not that the story necessarily ends there, of course. If a child is veering off into bullying territory, parents, teachers or psychologists may need to get involved. But if it's in the realm of low-grade taunting or teasing, let's not overreact.

When we show kids that rude and hurtful comments are all about the commenter, and not the commentee — without making overly broad pronouncements about either party — we teach them all how to shrug off the opinions of others and focus on more important things.

A lesson for the ages.