Plays Well With Others Ⅳ- Woodmam

Ostrov’s mentor, Dr. Nikki Crick of the University of Minnesota, has contradicted decades of earlier research that claimed girls weren’t aggressive. She proved that girls can be just as aggressive as boys—only they’re more likely to use relational aggression.

Similarly, Dr. Debra Pepler has shown that at the elementary school age, the “nonaggressive” kids are far from saintly—they still threaten to withdraw their friendship and threaten and push, just not as frequently as the more aggressive kids. So rather than the nonaggressive being the “good” kids, it might just be that they lack the savvy and confidence to assert themselves as often.

As University of Connecticut professor Dr. Antonius Cillessen explains, it’s now recognized that aggressiveness is most often used as a means of asserting dominance to gain control or protect status. Aggression is not simply a breakdown or lapse of social skills. Rather, many acts of aggression require highly attuned social skills to pull off, and even physical aggression is often the mark of a child who is “socially savvy,” not socially deviant. Aggressive kids aren’t just being insensitive. On the contrary, says Cillessen, the relationally aggressive kid needs to be extremely sensitive. He needs to attack in a subtle and strategic way. He has to be socially intelligent, mastering his social network, so that he knows just the right buttons to push to drive his opponent crazy. Aggression comes as “early adolescents are discovering themselves. They’re learning about coolness—how to be attractive to other people.”

This completely changes the game for parents. When parents attempt to teach their seven-year-old daughter that it’s wrong to exclude, spread rumors, or hit, they are literally attempting to take away from the child several useful tools of social dominance. “This behavior is rewarded in peer groups,” observed Cillessen, “and you can say as a parent, ‘Don’t do this,’ but the immediate rewards are very powerful.” As long as the child is compulsively drawn to having class status, the appeal of those tools will undermine the parent’s message. Children already know that parents think these behaviors are wrong—they’ve heard it since they were tots. But they return to these behaviors because of how their peers react—rewarding the aggressor with awe, respect, and influence.

The mystery has been why. Why don’t kids shun aggressive peers? Why are so many aggressive kids socially central, and held in high regard?

Two reasons. First, aggressive behavior, like many kinds of rule breaking, is interpreted by other kids as a willingness to defy grownups, which makes the aggressive child seem independent and older—highly coveted traits. The child who always conforms to adults’ expectations and follows their rules runs the risk of being seen as a wimp.

The other reason aggressive kids can remain socially powerful is that—just as the less-aggressive kids aren’t angels—aggressive kids aren’t all devils, either.

“A vast majority of behavioral scientists think of prosocial and antisocial behavior as being at opposite ends of a single dimension,” explains University of Kansas professor Patricia Hawley. “To me, that oversimplifies the complexity of human behavior.”

In the canon of child development, it’s long been taken as gospel that a truly socially-competent child is nonaggressive. Hawley questions that orientation.

Hawley studies kids from preschool up through high school. She looks specifically at how one kid makes another do his bidding—whether it’s through kind, prosocial behavior, or antisocial acts—threats, violence, teasing. Contrary to those who expected kids high in prosocial behavior to be low in antisocial acts, and vice versa, she finds that the same kids are responsible for both—the good and the bad. They are simply in the middle of everything, or, in the words of another researcher, “They’re just socially busy.”

Hawley calls the children who successfully use both prosocial and antisocial tactics to get their way “bistrategic controllers.” These kids see that, when used correctly, kindness and cruelty are equally effective tools of power: the trick is achieving just the right balance, and the right timing. Those who master alternating between the two strategies become attractive to other children, rather than repellant, because they bring so much to the party. Not only are they popular, they’re well-liked by kids, and by teachers, too (who rate them as being agreeable and well-adjusted).

Hawley’s data suggests that at least one in ten children fits the bistrategic description. But inspired by her approach, several other scholars have done similar analyses. Their subsequent findings suggest that the proportion is even higher—around one in six.

Jamie Ostrov has been finding kids with a similarly mixed pattern of prosocial and aggressive behavior in his preschool research. In his television-use study, the children who watched a lot of educational television were far more relationally aggressive, but they were vastly more prosocial to classmates as well.

“The lesson from these children is that it might not make sense to look at aggression alone,” Hawley stated. “Bistrategics can use unsettling levels of aggression without suffering the same consequences of those using only aggression.” It’s an exhibition of their nascent ambition.

For her part, Hawley’s only problem is that her bistrategics are so successful, in school and in life, that she still can’t get a grant to follow them long-term.
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