Bullying is intrinsic to the school setting

We can legislate all we want about making bullying against the law. But the truth is that we would have no bullying if we did not ship kids off to be isolated from the majority of adults for the majority of their days. Kids are much less likely to bully when they are intermingled with adults, in the real world. 

People naturally categorize each other. We have been doing this forever, and it’s good for the human race. Our internal drive to associate ourselves in a bigger group helped us last where the the relatively solitary neanderthals did not.  We have developed ways to choose to be around smart people by subconsciously identifying visual cues—and this is why good looking people are also smarter. (Yes, really. Here’s the research.)

So my point is that humans are masters of categorization. The drive to categorize and affiliate ourselves with different groups is a primal. So, of course the drive to exclude people is primal. If we don’t exclude people then we cannot have a sense of belonging. If everyone belongs everywhere then we belong nowhere.

The thing that keeps kids in check is the adults around them. Throughout human history kids have been raised alongside adults and the adults have modeled for them how to act. Throughout human history the ratio of adults to kids has never been 1:30. In this case, you cannot model for the kid. The kids are teaching each other. They are isolated from examples of how adults live their daily lives.

This is a good time to tell you that I am a Lord of the Flies scholar. I realized, during my freshman year of college, that the most efficient way to write papers is to always write about Lord of the Flies. It worked because I impressed the non-literature professors, and there were many, that I brought in outside texts. Of course, I also brought in my own outside papers, that I altered and repurposed. But what I learned is that just about everything can be explained in terms of Lord of the Flies. And this is no exception: If you leave kids alone, with no adults, they start categorizing and affiliating and they are mean.

Bullying seems like a completely normal outcome of leaving kids to themselves at school. They have a natural tendency to categorize and affiliate. And there is no one modeling how to do that nicely. When you tell kids “you can’t say you can’t play” you disrupt their social development. They should not have to play with kids just because they are stored together on the same playground during lunch time.

A fundamental part of being human is choosing who to associate with. Kids bully as a way to say “you are not with me” and as a way to assert their own power in a society setting. It’s not wrong to to that—it’s wrong to do it in a crass way. But telling kids they can’t do it at all won’t work.

Of course, what will work, and what worked for thousands of years, is allowing kids to associate with adults during the daytime so that they learn appropriate social behavior.

20 replies
  1. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Once the kids left school, my son continued to ponder (and agonize over) the classroom pecking order. Why did this guy like him one week and dismiss him the next? Why was this friend so popular and he was not?

    I meandered around the standard “kids looking for attention,” but beneath was this knowing that all people group themselves. We just tend to be less hostile about it.

    Wait, except for chats online that deteriorate into name calling and generalizations. Perhaps the gov’t should ban communication between anonymous/psedonym-using text writers?

    Kidding! Really, though, adults regress into LordoftheFlies quickly enough with the web barrier. Webs. Flies. “Welcome to my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”

    I digress.

    We were talking on our walk yesterday, and the son said that people who don’t have the internet “troll” in public by picking on others: the world as viewed through the Web Generation.

  2. Jim
    Jim says:

    Ha, I’m a Fahrenheit 451 scholar. I wrote a dozen papers on or involving that book.

    I was bullied mercilessly starting in about the 7th grade. It was hell. But here’s the rub: I’ve encountered bullies in so many settings in my adult life. Thankfully, I know how to handle them now. (I wish someone had taught me when I was 12.) Point is, this isn’t unique to schools.

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Bullying isn’t unique to schools but it is so much more vicious. And an adult can leave. If you are experiencing bullying as an adult you have some options. You can look for a new job if it is a work situation. A child has to keep going to a school and spending six or more hours a day in the same room with the bullies. There is no escape unless they can convince an adult to rescue them, and I know from teachers that, at least as far as the mean girl bullying, they can’t stop it. My daighter’s fifth grade teacher told me that even when they try, very hard, they can’t stop it.

      • Marc Young
        Marc Young says:

        I think that’s a false dilemma. Many adults get bullied and are in situations they find they cannot easily get themselves out of. Just as kids can learn to adapt to bullying scenerios.

  3. BenK
    BenK says:

    I suggest that there is another way – having schools which really mix the age groups. Why should remedial classes exist in community colleges and advanced middle school children attend university? Why not blur the boundaries much more than that, so that most settings are a mixture of ages?

    • JeffGroves
      JeffGroves says:

      Agreed. My little brother was bullied relentlessly until he fell in with an older group of students. They held plays, and my brother was good at preparing stages and costumes, so they stood up for him because he was useful to them.

      Of course, intermingling with older students can lead to bullying as well. I think the key is exposing students to numerous interest groups so they can find their niche; many interests, like symphony , dirt biking, etc. are usually limited to older students.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Penelope, you wrote the following on a post shortly after the Sandy Hook tragedy – “Kaitlin Roig described what she said to the kids when they were locked in a bathroom together. She is amazing. She assumed they would all die so she focused on helping them feel good about themselves in their last minutes. She told them the truth, that someone bad was on the other side of the door. She gave them a way to feel power: pray if you do that, or think happy thoughts. She gave them something to do with themselves, even if it is small.”
    Along the same lines, I think teachers should empower their students to be able to recognize and deal with bullying situations by educating them about it. Set up and teach classes specifically devoted to the subject of bullying. The more extreme bullying cases need to be reported and the students need to be aware of it and encouraged to come forward.
    The frequency and nature of bullying today compared to when I went to school is much different. However what’s also different is the accelerated pace of life and the home life of children today with many coming from a single parent household or both parents working full time jobs. So now the schools are expected to carry out the job of parenting and assigned that responsibility without additional resources legislated by politicians because evidently that’s what some of their constituents want. What a disaster.
    So, again, teach the students some real life skills including tactics on how to deal with bullies instead of trying to legislate, regulate, and hire more administrative school staff to deal with the problem.

  5. redrock
    redrock says:

    Bullying can be found in nearly every environment: school, workplace, sports, internet…. you name it. And, while the homeschooling promotion always assumes that the parents are great people always concerned about the well being of their children (which is what one would hope), the dirty little secret is that parents are not infrequently the bullies in their children’s lives.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s really interesting. I see this as a compliance thing. The threats that parents make in order to get compliance. I see, as my kids get older, how the threats have to keep escalating in order to have impact. It’s a no-win game. I never called this bavhavior bullying in my head, but as soon I read your comment I made the connection.


      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I don’t think compliance and corrections classify as bullying – in my understanding (and everybodies threshold differs) bullying also hits a spot where it hurts most, where on is more vulnerable.

  6. gordana dragicevic
    gordana dragicevic says:

    Another thing not to forget – kids being bullied by the teachers themselves. It should be illegal and there are definitely differences between schools/countries, but most undiagnosed Aspergians have experienced it at school to some extent. Like – you are so intelligent, so you must be behaving inappropriately and being difficult on purpose… And it is not only the socially awkward kids who get this, tomboyish girls and quiet boys for example are also regular targets. The other children in the class tend copy the teacher and pick on the kids who’ve already been declared weird by the adult with authority…so they get bullied more.
    Schools fit the average kid. Even if it could be argued that schools are useful in general, for the kids who are not average they are pain much, much more than gain.

  7. Lisa S
    Lisa S says:

    I have three kids (ages 11, 8, 6) I have homeschooled from the start, and on any given day they can be kind, loving, and just plain nasty to one another (and to me). It isn’t the same dynamic as the ‘school bully,’ but my kids certainly aren’t exempt from feeling like they belong or feeling like a total outcast.

    The difference comes in my ability as the adult to work the kids through these actions and emotions. It consistently surprises me that so much of homeschooling is “parenting.” The education portion is a breeze compared to the consistent need to develop character.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes! The education stuff is so easy compared to everything else, but the education stuff is what scares everyone from homeschooling. It’s so clear, once you are homeschooling, that this is true, but so hard to see until you take on the education yourself. The school system has to constantly sell to the parents that teaching is too hard for parents.


  8. Karen
    Karen says:

    Along with bullying, school teaches kids to waste time trying to fit where they don’t belong instead of focusing their energies on finding somewhere the do belong. Once they become adults, this translates into lost time in jobs and social groups where you don’t belong–simply because they’ve learned that they are supposed to try to figuring out how to belong somewhere that isn’t right for them. Wouldn’t it be better for kids if teachers, patrnts and other adults in kids’ lives could acknowledge to kids something like: “This group of kids isn’t for you. Let’s help you find some kids that you belong with, even if It means you go somewhere else for school.” This, of course, probably happens almost not at all in our schools.

    (This kind of advice could have discriminatory undertones in the wrong circumstances, which would be bad. But, there are still huge issues in our schools regarding integration (they’re becoming less integrated), so simply not acknowledging sorting and belonging does little to address that problem.)

  9. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    Great point. It’s very obvious from reading the news that the school system is responsible for bullying.

    People should really refer themselves to the Lord of the Flies scenario when thinking that being around a bunch of immature kids all day will teach you socialization skills for the real world.

  10. Jeanice
    Jeanice says:

    Holy crap – I’m losing my mind reading this. You articulate exactly what I feel and think but am not alway able to articulate. What’s even crazier is that when people ask me if I worry about socialization, I always tell them, “I personally don’t think much good is going on out on the playground. It’s like Lord of the Flies out there.” Honest truth. I’ve always felt that the best thing our kids can do is spend a bit more time learning from strong adults. As hubs says “The biggest danger to kids is other people’s kids”. We all learned from other kids growing up, made huge mistakes, and then spent our late teens and early twenties apologizing to each other once we gained enough maturity to recognize how lame we all were in our youth. Thank you for this post!

  11. Makendall
    Makendall says:

    Dear Penelope, I have enjoyed some of your other articles but I must say I think you are just a little off base with some of your comments in this one. First of all, your reference to the “study” that beautiful people are smarter was nothing more than an excerpt from a book which only stated that beautiful people get better grades. I think the point was not that if you are beautiful you are smarter and thus get better grades. I think it’s point was that because they feel more confident in themselves they get better grades. I, myself, if I may so modestly say, am a pretty good looking gal and so this is not coming from some bitter physically ugly person. The truth is being attractive is not always a good thing I have been disliked by some women only because they didn’t bother to look past the cover to read what’s inside. So it’s a little annoying to hear that you are judging a person based on their looks. That kind of stereotyping is what makes not-so-attractive people hate us and makes them feel inferior. It simply isn’t true that, if your beautiful you are smarter than your not-so good looking counterparts. That is just ignorant in itself and I’m surprised that it came from you. I would’ve expected more. Perhaps you’re just having an off writing day. As for kids needing to have adults around to model correct behavior, I totally agree. I think homeschooling children offers a priceless opportunity to model and redirect kids behavior in negative social situations – a learning opportunity if you will. One problem though: your assuming that all adults (beautiful or not) know how to deal with conflict themselves. You’re not addressing the fact that well-educated mothers and fathers can still have trauma of their own from childhood bullying and may be bullies themselves. I do not agree that bullying is, as you say, a way to establish which group you belong to. Rather, it is a way to gain a sense of control over others when the bully themselves feel otherwise out of control. They may be picked on by family members. It would be wonderful if all homeschool social situations involved mature, honest parents who really want to deal with any shortcomings of their children and have open discussion about conflict so as to raise them properly but I have found recently, to my deep disappointment, that many mothers cannot engage in honest, non-threatening conversation about their children’s behavior or their own for that matter because of many differing fears. Some mom’s may be aware of their children’s behavior but the fear of being judged and possibly outed from the group if they admit this problem is just too frightening for them. I think that homeschooling is wonderful but can have a negative effect on moms and their children isolate themselves from others or if mom does not learn how to deal with conflict effectively. I think conflict management is a skill that has not yet even come close to meeting it’s full potential in the homeschooling community and it is an area ripe for discussion, research and, for the writer/blogging homeschooling mom, a resource book for homeschool groups.

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