Are children getting meaner younger?

Sasha There’s probably a little bit of mean girl in all of us; everyone wants to be accepted, to be a member of the in crowd. And for there to be an “in” crowd, there have to be people who are left out. A sense of exclusivity can be intoxicating for adults, let alone kids, and we seem to have a very primal instinct for how to fabricate this exclusivity, how to make membership in a social group seem both desirable and almost unobtainable, almost.

My 7 year old daughter is a social butterfly; everyone wants to be Sasha’s friend. She has very strong opinions about what clothes are cool (none of mine, apparently), and what music is worth listening to – yes, she’s only 7! For Sasha, it’s not about fashion in the traditional sense that you can go and buy the latest styles off the rack. It’s about a very innate sense of how to put clothes together in a unique, funky way that is “cool”. She’s really very good at this and has a look all of her own. But she can make rather harsh judgements about people, including her parents and sister, who don’t share her aesthetic, and has been known to extend this judgement to girls in her class. At a recent parent-teacher conference, Sasha’s second grade teacher told us that there had been some less than ideal behavior towards another second grade girl, and Sasha was at its epicenter. It seems that the behavior leant more towards the exclusionary, rather than name calling, but even so. The teacher had spoken to Sasha and the other girls about it, and of course, we did as well, a few times. It seems that things are much better now.

Jostling for a place in the social hierarchy is never going to go away, its part of how humans, and other animals, interact with each other. But that doesn’t mean that we should just accept this and turn a blind eye. Particularly if, as this NY Times article points out, bullying of various sorts seems to be happening ever earlier these days.

The article does consider the possibility that things aren't really worse now than playground bullying has ever been, but rather that today’s hyper-vigilant parents are just more sensitive to the slightest issue and that the normal social hustle and bustle of elementary school is being blown up into more of an issue than it really is. However, despite a paucity of data at this point to support an increase in real early bullying, there does seem to be a lot of anecdotal evidence in the press. Though again, perhaps the media is just more attuned to this issue.

The Times questions whether young children are mimicking behaviors they see in the movies and on television – behaviors that are certainly more extreme than in the shows that I grew up watching. Whatever the reason, many children do seem to be exhibiting more “sophisticated” behaviors than I remember from elementary school, both in dress, music choices and general awareness of the adult world. Of course, the Internet and YouTube undoubtedly have contributed to this. I don’t want to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, waxing nostalgically about the good old days of the Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy, but there just seems to be no doubt that, for good and for bad, our children are exposed at an increasingly young age to sexually charged, graphically violent and other kinds of material, of the sort that used to be limited to adults, if shown at all. As I’ve written so often, I think the Internet gives with one hand, but often takes away with another; children have access to so much more information these days, but there is definitely a price to be paid for that. Of course, the Internet hardly takes all responsibility; TV, pop music, movies, video games, all have a part to play here.

The answer isn’t censorship, you can’t turn back the clock on the entertainment and technology industries. But, we can as parents, as schools, as communities, try to deal with the fallout. Our situation was easily and quickly nipped in the bud; our children go to a small school where the teachers have a great deal of insight into the dynamics of the various classroom relationships. We have a good, very friendly relationship with Sasha's 2nd grade teacher (in fact, all of the teachers) and she felt very comfortable discussing this issue with us. We quickly handled things our end, and even spoke with the parents of the girl who was being left out (who we are also friendly with). We assured them that we had spoken to our daughter about her part in the situation and told them to immediately let us know if they heard anything back from their daughter to make them think that anything had started up again.

The seeming increase of this kind of unacceptable behavior in elementary school needs to be taken seriously, if only because bullying in middle and high school has become so virulent with Facebook and cellphones making it particularly easy to torment other children. Another NY Times piece details the horrors of cyberbullying among teens. While the Internet and Facebook didn’t create bullying, as the articles goes on to say, “online bullying can be more psychologically savage than schoolyard bullying. The Internet erases inhibitions, with adolescents often going further with slights online than in person.” Various sites on the Internet even allow children to bully anonymously, or behind a fake persona, encouraging the, “dark, vicious side of adolescence, enabled and magnified by technology.”

I don’t know whether the statistics show that more young people are committing suicide as a direct result of bullying these days, but there certainly seem to be a lot of these stories in the news recently. Ultimately, this is not a technology issue, this is a cultural and sociological issue at heart; we need to help children, and young adults understand the pain they cause when they marginalize other children and when they bully. Schools need to adopt a zero tolerance policy towards bullying and parents need to accept that their children might be responsible for some less than ideal behavior. Too many of these tragic bullying stories seem to involve parents who deny that their children were engaged in bullying and don’t act swiftly and forcefully enough when confronted with evidence of wrongdoing.

We would all like to think that our children are perfect little angels, but of course, they're not, they're human. And human beings sometimes elbow each other for higher places in the social order. Children are still learning about the importance of respecting each other and being empathic. We need to do our best to model these behaviors and to help them find their way through the maze of social interactions and media messages. Better to teach them these lessons sooner rather than later; it’s not going to get easier!