Plays Well With Others Ⅲ- Woodmam

If we can accept that children will be exposed to some parental conflict—and it may even be productive—can we say the same thing for interactions with their peers? Is there some level of conflict with peers that kids should learn to handle, on their own, without a parent’s help?

Dr. Joseph Allen, a professor and clinician at the University of Virginia, says that many modern parents are trapped in what he calls “The Nurture Paradox.”

“To protect kids is a natural parental instinct,” Allen explained. “But we end up not teaching them to deal with life’s ups and downs. It’s a healthy instinct, and fifty years ago parents had the same instinct, just that they had no time and energy to intervene. Today, for various reasons, those constraints aren’t stopping us, and we go wild.”

At the Berkeley Parents Network, an online community, this struggle is vividly apparent. Parents anguish over whether jumping into the sandbox is appropriate to defend their children from a toy-grabber. Other parents confess that their once-cute child has become socially aggressive, which they find abhorrent and are at a loss to stop. The message board is full of stories of children being teased and ostracized; the responses range from coaching children to be less of a target to advocating martial arts training to reminding children they won’t be invited to every birthday party in life. Nobody has the perfect answer, and it’s clear just how torn the parents are.

The Nurture Paradox has moved many parents to demand “zero tolerance” policies in schools, not just for bullying, but for any sort of aggression or harassment. There is no evidence that bullying is actually on the increase, but the concern about its effects has skyrocketed.

In March 2007, the British House of Commons Education and Skills Committee convened a special inquiry on school bullying. For three days its members called a variety of witnesses, from school principals to academic scholars to support organizations. The testimony ran a full 288 pages when printed. No laws were written, and no systemwide policies were forced on all the schools, but that wasn’t really the goal of the inquiry. Rather, the entire exercise was conducted to make one important categorical declaration, meant to guide the national culture: “The idea that bullying is in some way character building and simply part of childhood is wrong and should be challenged.” Any sort of name-calling, mocking, gossiping, or exclusion needed to be condemned.

Most scholars have agreed that bullying can have serious effects, and that it absolutely needs to be stopped. However, they’ve balked on the “zero tolerance” approach.

A task force of the American Psychological Association warned that many incidents involve poor judgment, and lapses in judgment are developmentally normative—the result of neurological immaturity. All of which was a fancy way of saying that kids make mistakes because they’re still young. They noted that inflicting automatic, severe punishments was causing an erosion of trust in authority figures. As the chair of the task force later explained, “The kids become fearful—not of other kids, but of the rules—because they think they’ll break them by accident.” During the new era of zero tolerance, levels of anxiety in students at school had gone up, not down. In Indiana, 95% of the suspensions weren’t for bullying, per se—they were for “school disruption” and “other.” The APA task force warned especially against over-applying zero tolerance to any sort of harassment.

Yet zero tolerance is becoming ever more common. According to one poll by Public Agenda, 68% of American parents support zero tolerance. From Florida to New York, schools are expanding their lists of what gets zero tolerance treatment to include teasing, cruelty, name-calling, social exclusion, and anything that causes psychological distress. One small Canadian town even passed a new law making these behaviors expressly illegal, punishable by fine.

According to the science of peer relations, there’s one big problem with lumping all childhood aggression under the rubric of bullying. It’s that most of the meanness, cruelty, and torment that goes on at schools isn’t inflicted by those we commonly think of as bullies, or “bad” kids. Instead, most of it is meted out by children who are popular, well-liked, and admired.

The connection between popularity, social dominance, meanness and cruelty is hardly a surprise to any teacher—the dynamic is plainly visible at most schools. It’s long been an archetype in literature and movies, from Emma to Heathers and Mean Girls. In some languages, there’s a separate word to distinguish the kind of popular teen who diminishes others—in Dutch, for instance, the idiomatic expression popie-jopie refers to teens who are bitchy, slutty, cocky, loud, and arrogant.

However, social scientists didn’t really get around to studying the connection between popularity and aggression until this decade. That’s largely due to the fact that the focus on the archetypal negative results of aggression helped papers get published and research dollars flow: grants were readily available to study the plight of aggressive kids, in the hope the findings might help society prevent aggressive kids from becoming our future prison population. The 1999 Columbine High School massacre opened more floodgates for grant dollars, as the government made it a priority to ensure students would never again open fire on their peers.

There was also a tendency, according to Dr. Allen, for social scientists to assume bad behaviors are uniformly associated with bad outcomes; aggression was considered bad behavior, so scientists were really only looking for the negative consequences of it.

Few research grants were available to study the popular kids systematically—chiefly because it was assumed popular kids are doing fine. Then, a few scholars who had been conducting long-term studies of adolescents reported on a connection between popularity and alcohol use. Lo and behold (not really any surprise), popular kids drink more and do more drugs.

For the first time, scientists were concerned about the kids who were doing well socially—they were at risk of becoming addicts, too! Suddenly, federal grant dollars began to flow into the science of popularity. Soon, the social forces of popularity were linked to aggression as well (especially relational aggression), and, finally, the social scientists caught up to the schoolteachers and screenwriters.

Today, the field of peer relations is in the process of doing an extraordinary backflip-with-twist, as scholars adapt to the new paradigm.
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