A number of years ago a 15 year-old child hung herself after repeated, prolonged bullying by a group of peers. Phoebe Prince was different, but not that different. She had recently moved from a small town in Ireland to a small town in Massachusetts. In Phoebe’s case, her difference alone may not have made her a target for bullying. She also dated a popular, senior football player when she was just a freshman. She had unknowingly crossed a social line. Accounts of the abuse Phoebe endured are painful to read but essential in comprehending the magnitude of the social tragedy unfolding in many communities. The perpetrators did not fit the typical stereotype of the loner from an abusive home lashing out at a vulnerable child on the playground. In fact, a number of Phoebe’s peers, boys and girls, joined an all out attack on her using every option available. She was verbally and physically assaulted repeatedly in school and cyber-bullied on Twitter, Facebook, and with text messages after school. Two young men were accused of statutory rape.
Source: Lisa Langhammer, used with permission
While technology allows people to connect 24/7, it also allows people to harass others night and day. Phoebe had nowhere to hide, no safe haven from her tormentors. The country was shocked and outraged by the severity of the bullying and by the fact that an innocent child had taken her own life as a result of it. As these tragic events were dissected, layers of blame were passed around freely – to the children who bullied Phoebe, the parents who raised the bullies, the teachers who may have witnessed the assaults, and the school system in charge of student safety. Certainly, when a child takes her own life, there is plenty of blame to go around.
Seth Walsh and Asher Brown were a little more different than Pheobe Prince. In another part of our country these two young men were relentlessly harassed by peers for allegedly being gay. Both killed themselves at 13. These three children are the tip of the iceberg. With so many similar, heartbreaking stories, we can no longer discount these episodes of bullying as isolated incidents carried out by a few rogue students. The constant stratification of human beings into better than or worse than actively pits groups and individuals against each other. In this toxic culture any child is a weak or immature frontal lobe away from bullying someone else. In this toxic culture every child could be bullied.
Awareness of the devastating emotional and physical impact of bullying is a step in the right direction, but most of the focus remains on the individual bully, as if each school or playground has but one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch. The bully and the bullied exist along a continuum of disconnection and destructive relational templates constantly reinforced by society’s message of separation, individuation and hyper-competition. Our children receive confusing, mixed messages even in the most relational communities.
A child succeeds in a hyper-individualized society by focusing on what he needs, labeling other children as “other”, and using “others” as a means to get what he needs or as competition in the way of what he needs. A successful businessman and father of an old friend of mine summarized the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism when he warned her, “along the way to the top you have to step on some blades of grass”. This was not a threat, but a life lesson offered as a wise tip to his beloved daughter who was following in his business footsteps. It was a loving piece of advice from a caring father, embedded in a very sick culture.
JUDGING FUELS WIDESPREAD PAIN
When was the last time you went a day or an hour or even a minute without judging yourself or someone else. You walk into a fundraiser at your child’s school and without even thinking, you compare yourself to every person in the room. Sam is prettier than Felice, Frank runs more than Bill, Hector’s house is bigger than Sally’s. If this sounds like you, you are not alone. In a society built around individual success, judging is an essential relational skill. In a cooperative society, difference is an asset, but in a competitive society, difference is a threat. If you and I are different, one of us is better than the other and the better one is more deserving of the capitalistic rewards.
Remember the controversial book written a few years ago by the “Tiger Mom”? It was an extraordinary account of raising Asian American daughters. Many of my peers were appalled by her rigid, controlling parenting style. This tiger mom banned play dates and sleepovers, tolerated no grade below an A, and enforced daily music lessons for her two girls. Is Tiger Mom an abusive parent or a disciplined parent grooming her daughters for success? The debate started the minute the book hit the bookshelves. In her mind, she was raising her children to be successful in American culture - and they were wildly successful! So many children today are burdened by the pressure to compete in school, sports, and music. Our kid’s lives are packed with activities designed not only to keep them engaged but also to help them “get ahead”. The cultural message is very clear - be better than those around you. I believe the cultural pressure to be better then the rest (as opposed to being the best you can be) launches a destructive cascade – pitting people against each other; the competition reinforces separation; the separation stimulates distress; and the distress helps shape a dysregulated anterior cingulate cortex (a part of the brain activated by both physical pain and the pain from social exclusion) in everyone, not just the bullied and the bully.
IF YOU DO NOT FIT IN YOU WILL BE LEFT OUT
Last year a good friend’s 11 year-old son asked if he would be able to go to college and if not, would he end up homeless. From college to homelessness, his young mind had grasped the implications of a hyper-competitive society. He had struggled in school because of a non-verbal learning disability and had just started middle school feeling the huge uptick in peer pressure. I was shocked and deeply saddened by his question. Even in my friend’s loving home he had ingested the pervasive cultural message: if you do not fit in you will be left out.
The data is clear: being socially disconnected is not just painful it is lethal. Because we are social beings, social exclusion stimulates our pain pathways and our stress response systems. Chronic exclusion means chronic pain leading to chronic stress and there is an overwhelming amount of research documenting the negative effect of chronic stress on the immune system leading to higher rates of illness and death from all causes. But still we socialize around hierarchy and stratification. Children early on learn their A,B,C’s, but also learn who is the smartest and who is the dumbest, who is the fastest and who is the slowest, which kids are shipped from the inner city to the suburbs for a better education and which kids can walk to the same school from their large house. Make no mistake, extreme competitiveness is at the core of child rearing and brain building in our successful capitalistic society.
I believe human experience is richer when difference is less dichotomized; when we focus on being differentiated from others rather then separate from others. We are not all the same; and it is in this amazing diversity of human experience that true resilience resides. If we can find ways to connect across these differences with respect and openness, the true power of connection is released. As adults we must teach our children and remind each other that humans are most productive not when they are stressed out by the threat of social exclusion, but when they are cooperating and can take for granted that they belong to a larger interconnected web of people. In human networks, the whole IS bigger then the sum of the parts. Whether you are on a sports team, in a family or part of a business, you can take pride in working hard and trying your best but it is as important to encourage others. In life, everyone has a role and everyone is needed to succeed. In the long run, our society will be stronger when everyone is included and everyone has a well-modulated anterior cingulate cortex with strong relational memories of acceptance and inclusion.