Saturday, December 8, 2012

Our Changing Society May be Affecting Childrens' Resilience to Bullying

My little guy has been into the Hardy Boys books lately, so we have been spending a lot of time reading them. There are the classic old books, and there are also new books. There are some dramatic differences between the two that I think reflect some significant changes in our society. This post may be a little off-topic from my regular posts about skills teaching, but I really feel like I need to say something.

In the classic Hardy Boys, Frank and Joe are closely connected to their parents. They constantly call their dad for advice, they let their mom know where they are going, and their mom even packs them lunches for their sleuthing activities. Even their Aunt Trudy is a significant part of the story as she often gives them advice, and in one book she physically beats off a man who attacked the boys.

In the new Hardy Boys, Frank and Joe (still the same age) have nothing to do with their parents, other than the fact that their dad set up the program they are part of. They actually lie to their mom and Aunt Trudy about where they are going - they have no idea the boys are detectives. Frank and Joe never call home. In one book, Frank was kidnapped for several days, and Joe did not even call his parents to let them know.

When I thought about it, this pattern is reflected in other children's books that are popular. I grew up reading books like Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables where the parental figures are an integral part of the story. Our kids are reading books like the Magic Treehouse and Harry Potter, where the parents are not present.

This is a huge change, and I think it reflects some huge changes in our society. Peer groups are becoming more important than parental attachments.

Our kids go to school all day with same age peers, with a teacher who sometimes has 30 plus students, and whom the parents barely know. When they are not in school, they are in daycare, also sorted into similar age peer groups. Then they get shuffled to sports and activities where they hang out with more same age peers and adults whom their parents barely know. Then, they have arranged playdates with same age peers.

What are we teaching our kids? It seems to me that the message is that their peers are more important than their families. Yikes.

Yes, the ability to make friends with and relate to same age kids is important, but I wonder if we have gone too far.

I have been thinking about how this might relate to bullying. Bullying has always been around. It was definitely around when I was kid. Yet there seems to be so much more publicity about it. It seems more kids are responding to being bullied by bring a gun into school and shooting everyone, or by killing themselves.

Here's my thought:
If our childrens' primary attachment is to their peers, and their peers reject them, the results are likely to be horrible for our children. However, if our children are primarily attached to their families and their peers reject them, it still will be hurtful, but not nearly as catastrophic.

There has been some research on resilience of children in the face of bullying that seems to support this. Bowes et al. (2010) found that, "Warm family relationships and positive home environments help to buffer
children from the negative outcomes associated with bullying victimisation."

It also can be looked at from a point of view of basic resilience. Resilience is better when you have strong social supports. We know that lack of social supports is a risk factor for suicide. If the social supports cannot come from peers, they need to come from family or others.

Masten and Reed (2002) say, "The best documented asset of resilience is a strong bond to a competent and caring adult, which need not be a parent.  For children who do not have such an adult involved in their life, it is the first order of business."

Just to be clear, bullying is wrong. People should treat others respectfully, and I fully support any programs that are trying to reduce bullying. It should not be the victim's responsibility to become resilient enough to overcome abusive behaviour. Also, I am no expert on bullying.

However, I believe there will always be some level of bullying out there. Whatever we can do to minimize tragedies is important.

I am now trying to stick to reading the older Hardy Boys to my son, but of course he wants the new ones :)

Bowes, L., Maughan, B., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T., Arseneault, L.  (2010). Families promote emotional and behavioural resilience to bullying: evidence of an environmental effect. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(7), p. 809-817.

Masten, A. S., & Reed, M. G. (2002).  Resilience in development.  In S. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.),
The handbook of positive psychology.  Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

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