When Kids are Unkind: Understanding Social Cruelty Among Children

“Aggression is normal,” says Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. “We feel aggression the way we feel hunger, tiredness and thirst. We cannot make it go away.”

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Protect your kids from peer cruelty.

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in children.

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“Watch Animal Planet,” she continues. “Every animal has aggressive impulses. It’s biological.”

Psychologist Michael Thompson, Ph.D., agrees. “There will always be bullying and teasing, because children naturally discover that they have power over one another,” says the co-author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies and Mom, They’re Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems.

But Thompson, like Simmons and others who’ve researched cruelty among children, says the issue is how that anger, power and competitiveness get expressed.

A former teacher and an active school consultant,Thompson distinguishes between healthy competitiveness and aggressiveness.

“Some anxious mothers [and fathers?] see all natural competition, especially among boys, as hurtful when it isn’t. And there are some parents who view quite destructive teasing as perfectly normal and acceptable,” he says. “The test is always how hurt the victim is by the competition. In healthy competition, the two parties want to compete again.”

So how does a parent promote healthy competition? “By mixing cooperative play and competitive games, so there isn’t a steady diet of competition,” Thompson says. He recommends that adults “arrange a variety of competitions – athletic, academic, musical, verbal, mathematical – so that the widest variety of kids have a chance to win them.”

Thompson also advises channeling children’s wish for power into leadership roles. “Give kids meaningful tasks that help them feel useful,” he suggests, like mentoring younger children or organizing games.

Boys Will Be Boys, Girls Will Be...Nice?

The way social cruelty is expressed – teasing, name-calling, threatening and bullying – varies by age and gender.

“It peaks between fourth and ninth grade,” Thompson observes. “Girls start earlier, boys start later. Girls also tire of it earlier.”

But there are other differences between boys and girls in social one-upsmanship. Girls are expected to be nice, Simmons says. “There’s more permission for rough-and-tumble among boys,” while girls are still – even in these days of presumed egalitarianism – taught to hide aggression. Even when angry, girls don’t feel entitled to show it, she says.

As a result, Simmons explains, girls engage in psychological aggression. She cites two main types:

  • relational aggression (using friendship as a weapon, as in “I won’t be your friend”) and
  • social aggression (trying to hurt the social status or self-esteem of another person).

Perhaps most problematic, in Simmons’ opinion, is that “It doesn’t get labeled aggression. They get away with it.”

Simmons is critical of many anti-bullying curricula. “They place too much emphasis on the message, ‘Be nice. Don’t bully,’” she says. “Girls know how to be nice. They need to know what to do when they get angry.”

She is also concerned about assertiveness programs that train girls to protect themselves from strangers but do little or nothing to teach them how to speak directly with a friend who has angered them. This isn’t a problem kids simply outgrow, she warns. “If you are unable to assert your power in a direct way (as a child or teen), then you will be unable to do this in a professional way as an adult.”

Although Simmons’ book focuses on girls, she says in retrospect that she wishes she’d addressed it to boys as well. “In this post-Columbine world,” she observes, “boys, too, are taught to hide aggression.”

Kirk Lorie, who teaches at a private boys’ school, witnesses the precise dynamics Simmons describes. “Despite posters and reminders to be nice, the bullying is not so much physical, but more verbal abuse: name-calling and relentless taunting targeted at anyone different – smaller, smarter, less athletic.”

Students in Lorie’s small school are too well-supervised to get away with physical aggression easily, he says, but psychological aggression is more slippery. To its credit, the school is attempting to address this more “hidden aggression” head on.

Following a model Thompson discusses in Best Friends, Worst Enemies, students at Lorie’s school meet weekly in teacher-facilitated groups of 10 to 12 students. The discussion groups are intended to give students a safe haven and, by Lorie’s description, it’s working.

“Sometimes the students just talk about sports,” Lorie reports, “but then they’ll talk emotionally for weeks about bullying.”

The groups encourage open expression and problem-solving among students and give teachers an opportunity to address concerns on a faculty

Teachable Moments

“How do we create an environment that reduces bullying?” asks Robert Brooks, Ph.D., a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “It’s better to be proactive than reactive,” he advises. “From the time children are born, parents need to model empathy and kindness,” says Brooks, co-author of Raising Resilient Children and Nurturing Resilience in Our Children.

Early childhood educators have a role to play, too. Social worker Barbara Mudd teaches preschoolers strategies for conflict resolution, direct negotiation and emotional control, like how to calm themselves down – powerful tools which she presents on a level that 4- and 5-year-olds can understand.

“The kids really get it,” she says. The curriculum includes identifying feelings, teaching empathy for others and appreciating differences among people. Teachers reinforce these qualities, Mudd says, by publicly recognizing when children do kind things for one another.

Mudd agrees with Brooks, who, like others who study bullying, issues this word of caution: “You don’t want to blame the victim, and you do have to watch for kids who add fuel to the fire.” Specifically, he suggests, “Parents need to help kids recognize if the kids themselves are doing something that doesn’t help the situation,” such as taunting others and only reporting the tormenting they get in return.

Thompson recommends checking with a teacher and “asking the hard questions” about ways in which a child may be eliciting the unkindness of others.

Above all, he says, “You have to appreciate the resilience of children. Don’t micromanage their social lives. And don’t hold a grudge for your kids.”

Related Reading:

  • Protect your kids from peer cruelty.
  • Learn how to defuse aggressive behavior in children.
  • Check out these helpful books.
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