School Bullying: A Call for More Empathy or More Self-Worth?

School bullying is back in the news with the occurrence of recent tragic events.  There seems to be a public perception that bullying is becoming more common.  I am skeptical of this, but cannot argue that cyber-bullying has made this behavior more public and visible.  It’s difficult to hide from the reality of cruelty between children when they’re bragging about it online. (See Hitler Youth, Nazi Germany, for pre-internet examples of teen bullying).

Television news organizations are interviewing the usual celebrity “Mental Health Professionals” for their opinions about the causes of and solutions to childhood bullying.  The need to develop Empathy among the victimizers is the most widely touted solution to the self-centeredness of the perpetrators. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and enter into another’s feelings.  In other words, put yourself in their shoes.  Here’s what’s wrong with this paradigm; bullies are already too focused on others.  That’s their problem!

Picture a group of “mean girls” who are very social, probably attractive, and extremely focused on getting attention from both male and female peers.  They’re gossiping about someone they don’t like, bonding over their mutual loathing of an outsider girl. They’ll have convinced themselves of a reason for targeting her; maybe she’s attracting too much attention from desirable boys, or it could be some other rationalization.  In any event, one can say that these girls are getting some self-esteem from ganging up on a more vulnerable peer.  They are making themselves feel better about themselves by hurting her.  They know what they’re doing and they know how she feels.  That’s the point; they’re getting a kind of false self-worth at her expense and protecting themselves from losing self esteem by making sure they’re not on the receiving end of the cruelty.  Bullying is actually a form of emotional dependency; using others to make one feel a certain way about oneself.

Boys who bully have the same goal; making themselves feel strong and invulnerable by, in essence, stealing self-esteem from someone else.

Now picture students you know who are doing well in school, engaging in extracurricular activities, planning for college, joining volunteer programs or participating in the community in some other way.  These kids aren’t paying so much attention to what their peers are doing.  They aren’t manufacturing a false sense of self-worth by putting others down-they have their own goals that have little to do with what’s cool or popular.  Basically, they have better things to do than to spend their time obsessing over what someone else is doing.  They have no need or desire to gain self-worth at the expense of another because they get it from their goals, values, and interests.

It’s true that no dependent child has more than the beginnings of an internalized sense of self-worth because that is something that can only be developed with age and experience.  But it doesn’t take a lot of self-worth for a kid to understand that targeting a peer and deliberately trying to ruin his or her life is wrong.

Family dynamics are key here, and the subject of another entry, but the point is:  Empathy, a focus on what’s going on inside someone else, is not a way out of the problem of bullying.  Kids need to be taught to focus on self-knowledge, self-esteem, morals and values that they can take with them and count on under any circumstances.  That’s where compassion for others comes from.

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