Excerpt from Chapter One
Walking down the crowded hall between classes the first day of middle school, Ellen unintentionally bumped another girl into a locker. Turning to apologize, Ellen saw the girl already talking to a couple friends. One of them angrily glared at her and said, "Why don't you watch where you're going, Hula Hips?" Then the other friend took up the call, "Watch out for Hula Hips!" And so, at the beginning of the year, a painful nickname was born from that casual encounter. By the end of the week, the name had stuck with repetition, picked up by other students, including a few she had known in elementary school and even some boys who thought it was funny to single her out for ridicule. "Watch out for Hula Hips!" they laughed. But it was not so funny for Ellen. The meanness of the teasing hurt. Welcome to middle school! Why do many good children increasingly treat each other badly starting as early as late elementary school; when does this meanness become most common; what are the objectives of this deliberate mistreatment; how is it typically delivered; and what can parents and teachers do to help children in response? These are the basic questions that I try to answer in this book, which is intended to be both descriptive and prescriptive— proposing how adult understanding and intervention can help stem the harm.
My term for this intentional meanness is social cruelty— aggressively attacking another child with words or actions directed to injure the victim's well-being, to damage his or her standing, or to simply assert the aggressor's dominance.
• Why it occurs is rooted in early adolescence (roughly beginning around ages nine to thirteen) when the insecurity and vulnerability of separating from childhood is coupled with the desire for increased social independence to act more grown-up.
• When it is most problematic is during the middle school years, because almost all the students have been destabilized and challenged by early adolescent change by then.
• What motivates this behavior is the need to protect diminished self-worth by derogating the worth of others, to attack others to preempt getting hurt first, to defend after being attacked, to give payback for injury received, to assert dominance, and to claim or hold one's social place.
• How it is typically acted out includes tactics of teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring (spreading rumors), and ganging up.
• What parents and teachers can do is become knowledgeable about the changing world of children at this vulnerable age, coach them in how to cope with social cruelty, help them develop a constructive code for treating each other, and get involved when significant acts of social cruelty occur.
The first step for adults is to understand how the potentiality of social cruelty in the lives of late elementary and middle school students is rooted in the dislocation, insecurity, and need for more social independence that comes with early adolescent change. The second step for adults is to stay sufficiently informed about the young person's increasingly independent social world so they can monitor and influence how early adolescents treat each other. The more youth groups are abandoned by significant adults (parents and teachers), the more social cruelty is likely to flourish due to the rigorous rules of social survival at this vulnerable age.
In addition, when adults ignore acts of social cruelty, they become complicit with the problem. The victim gets no support. The community of peers becomes more unsafe. And the victimizer learns to become more aggressive, more antisocial, and intentionally harmful while he or she grows. Such development can set the stage for psychological and social adjustment problems later in life. This is another reason why adults must not leave early adolescents entirely alone to determine social conduct amongst themselves.
Staying informed, however, is not easy for adults, because young people's new sense of social independence works against involvement. Adolescents want to have a social world apart from adults, one that is private about what happens, and that includes incidents of social cruelty. In addition to young people's need for privacy, their pride in keeping up appearances, and their desire to keep adults out, there is also the "don't-tell-on-peers" code of the school yard that encourages secrecy and silence.
In fact, social cruelty is protected by this conspiracy of silence. Most acts of social cruelty go undetected by adults because they are unreported. Young people don't tell you, because to let adults know of these incidents, they would have to sacrifice some social independence and risk serious social payback. To quote what one middle school student told me: "Snitches get stitches."
So when a teacher asks the kids what happened out in the hall, they pretend they don't know. After all, it's safer to lie to a teacher than to tell on a peer, because reprisal from the other students can always come their way.
Besides, most teachers don't know what is going on. Asked about their last class, most middle school teachers will likely remember how students responded to instructions and either complied with or resisted their need for order. Ask students what happened in the same class, and they will describe another level of social interaction that teachers can miss. Teachers don't hear what the students whisper; they don't see the looks that are given; and they don't read the notes that are passed. They don't know the threats that are made, and they don't hear the harsh words that are said or the names that are called. They don't sense the jealousies; they don't notice the rivalries developing; and they aren't told the stories that are being spread around school. They don't witness the bumps and pokes that are delivered (until they explode into a fight). They don't pick up on who is not talking to whom today or who is fixing whom with a hostile glare. But it is in this second world, which is mostly hidden from adults, where social cruelty occurs.
As for parents, they may not know, because their child doesn't want them to know how he or she is fearful or friendless, or perhaps feels threatened or alone. Typically, if young people are on the receiving end of social cruelty, they will make this difficult situation even worse by blaming themselves for not fitting in, insufficient popularity, or inadequate toughness. In turn, young people end up blaming parents for their ignorance of the situation. The primary reasons young people cite for not disclosing the social cruelty they receive at school is that 1) they believe parents wouldn't believe that kind of thing goes on; 2) it might imply that something is wrong with them; or 3) adults will intervene in ways that will only make things worse.
To paraphrase one student's complaint: "My parents just don't get it! But if I told them, they'd think something's wrong with me. They haven't a clue what seventh grade is really like. They don't know what I face each day! My report card—that's all they care about. That's the least of my problems!" Actually, the child is mistaken. There's much more breadth of caring in his parents than he gives them credit for.