How does a Humanist deal with Bullying?
No parent wants to see their child suffer at the hands of a bully. As much as we would like to shield them from horrible people, as parents, we have to be realistic. Our job is to prepare our kids for life in the real world and that means helping them learn how to cope with mean people.
The problem is that most parents don’t know how to actually help their kids aside from general platitudes like – stand up for yourself or ignore them. The question is, how does a Humanist parent approach the subject of bullying? The answer? With science and compassion of course.
I studied cognitive psychology in college and spent time in a dolphin cognition research lab. While there I learned about operant and classical conditioning. The way you extinguish a behavior in an animal using operant conditioning is the same way you get a bully to stop. Not by punishing bad behavior, but by not rewarding it.
It turns out that animals and bullies treat negative reinforcement as reinforcement. In order to get bullying to stop, you need to not reinforce the bully at all. This is hard to do because, well, they won’t let you.
What we need to do is to teach our child practical things they can do and say that will help them respond without provide a reward. It isn’t enough to say – stand up for yourself or ignore them. Kids need to be told specifically, here is what you need to say, and say it in this tone of voice and let’s practice it so you can say it under the pressure of active bullying. Most kids can pick up these skills pretty quickly when presented in this way.
The key is to help your child develop a neutral emotional response to the actions of a bully. The best way to do that is to practice and cultivate compassion. It’s hard to do because we are often so involved in our own hurt that we don’t want to let go enough to think compassionately about others. But it is precisely when we let go of our own hurt that we are able to respond in a more neutral way because, we are no longer thinking about our hurt, we are thinking about the pain of another. Compassion really is a powerful emotion.
Finally, what we know from science is that it isn’t enough to not reinforce a bully; you have to actually be prepared for what is known as an extinction burst or a blowout. Basically, when you take away an animal’s reward, they don’t give it up without a fight. They work harder and become more aggressive to get their reward. In other words, when you stop reinforcing a bully, they get more aggressive for a period of time before they give up the bad behavior.
This well-known dynamic is the main reason why most kids give up trying to get bullying to stop. They make a good faith effort to do what the adults counsel them to do, it makes their problem worse, not better, so they give up. However, when a child is told to expect this escalation as part of the natural process of eliminating the behavior, they are better equipped to handle the escalation and ride it out until it goes away.
Again, they key to doing this successfully is having the right frame of mind and that requires compassion.
About the Author:
Jen Hancock is an author and teaches parents practical ways they can protect their kids from bullying. Using techniques she learned from her mother as well as from her experience as a dolphin trainer in Hawaii. These skills are so easy to learn even a kindergartner can understand them.
As a mother herself, Jen taught these skills to her son when he was a kindergartener and he was easily able to put them into practice the very next day. And, yes, they worked, he even endorsed her book, The Bully Vaccine.
Statements in this editorial do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.