Children are born to reach a unique destiny. Each child deserves to be nurtured and empowered to achieve their full potential. Yet, the environment in which children grow and learn is not always fertile ground for them to flourish and there is a prolific weed in our societal garden which will stunt their growth.
One of the most distressing situations any parent can face is when you learn your child is being bullied. Naturally you want to protect your child. Yet you can’t keep them in a cocoon.
Even more distressing is when you get a call from school that your child has been bullying others, and there may be an inclination to defend your child’s behavior.
Humans have a built in mechanism to protect and defend and that proclivity is a source of bullying behavior.
What is being protected or defended is the human ego; the aspect of the human psyche most often used to help one make your way in the world.
Bullying is making your way aggressively by hurting or intimidating another. It is an intentional act characterized by repetition and a disparity of power. This includes any form of physical or emotional aggression and cruelty.
Bullying serves no useful purpose in society. It shatters self-confidence and self-esteem, even in those who may appear confident and strong. The same applies to those who bully others. They often suffer from a lack of confidence and esteem. Yet, in some cases where it appears there is an over abundance of confidence or esteem, underneath there is still a sense of lack. Otherwise, there would be no need to bully another.
No one likes to be hurt, threatened, or outcast; especially children who are formulating their identity.
Why do kids bully? Not for the reasons you may think. University of California sociologists, Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee conducted a study (Social Networks and Aggression at the Wheatley School) commissioned by CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360°. They found most bullying in schools is not the stereotypical schoolyard bully; rather a form of “social combat” to reach the top of the school hierarchy.
"Kids are caught up in patterns of cruelty and aggression that have to do with jockeying for status,” according to Feris. “It's really not the kids that are psychologically troubled, who are on the margins or the fringes of the school's social life. It's the kids right in the middle, at the heart of things . . . often, typically highly, well-liked popular kids who are engaging in these behaviors."
Bullying transcends all demographic and psychographic boundaries. Though Wheatley is a nationally top-ranked high school in the affluent suburb of Long Island, New York, the results were similar to those in the less affluent than the national average small towns and rural areas of North Carolina where they conducted previous studies.
More importantly, bullying was found to be social and group phenomenon more than an individual conflict between two people.
A person who has a balanced sense of confidence and worth is compassionate and kind. They have no need or desire to use bullying behavior. That is why the best way to end bullying is to build self-confidence and self-worth in children by growing their unique leadership.
Climbing the social ladder and jockeying for status is a function of ego, and children are beginning to form this identity well before middle and high school age.
Children need to be empowered to take the lead on this issue by the adults around them in the classroom and at home, so they can intervene in bullying situations in a safe and fruitful way and create a culture of compassion.
In fall 2011, fourth and fifth grade students at the Campbell Academy of the Atlanta Public Schools in Georgia were learning about growing their Leadership Garden in a Leadership Legacies unit created by teacher Lesli Burton and were also studying social issues in a Positive Platforms unit led by teacher Latoya Jenkins.
An 11 year-old girl studying bullying obtained permission to interview a girl considered a bully on video.
Ms. Burton shared, “The students who watched the presentation gave such wonderful suggestions for how the student could be helped. Instead of vilifying her, they showed true empathy. We were really proud of them. . . . My class made connections by advising what types of weeds needed to be weeded from her garden, and what seeds she already had that could be sprouted. Since the student is loud, they suggested ways she could use her voice for good instead of bullying, such as public speaking.”
This young girl now had a group of children surrounding her who could help empower her highest good.
That is the power of planting the seeds of children’s leadership.
Due to the students’ response to their units, Ms. Burton and Ms. Jenkins joined forces and applied for and were awarded a winter $500 Cultivation Grant for a school-wide student-led "Transforming My Leadership Potential Compassion Project" with a focus on using empathy.
Imagine what will sprout from that?
As these two dedicated teachers found, to sprout compassion and uproot bullying behavior merely takes a commitment to helping children grow their unique leadership with purpose and aim.
Debra J. Slover is the award winning author of U.N.I.Q.U.E. KIDS: Growing My Leadership Garden and social entrepreneur who provides grants through the Leadership Garden Fund to support the use of leader-friendly gardening practices by children. Her expertise stems from 34 years empowering youth and adult leadership in school and community environments. To learn more about the Leadership Garden Fund visit: www.leadershipgardenlegacy.com/grants.