You try your best to teach your child to be a good student, an empathetic sibling, and a kind classmate – and you think that you’ve been fairly successful so far. So you’re understandably upset when you receive a call from the principal midway through the afternoon, asking you to come in for an emergency meeting; apparently, the child you raised to be so sweet and kind has been reported for bullying. You insist that there must be some mistake, some error to explain why your child sits so guiltily in their chair. You leave with your student, embarrassed and heartbroken, wondering which wrong turn you must have taken to find yourself in such a situation.
The truth is, you might have done nothing – but that in itself may be the issue. In today’s society, it seems as though one can’t turn on the television or scroll through a phone without encountering noxious disrespect, blatant racism, and utter rudeness. Worryingly, this problematic behavior often stems from our nation’s most visible political figures and role models. The constant barrage of negativity has created a charged moral environment for children to navigate – and without careful parental guidance, even sweet children can sour into rude, disrespectful ones.
Consider this: According to documents published by the California Department of Education, children begin imitating their caretakers’ behaviors at as young as eight months old. However, a child growing up in our media-centric culture doesn’t live in a bubble. Like tiny sponges, our children take in behavioral cues from their parents, teachers, classmates, and even those they see on television – and increasingly, the actions they see modeled are far off from the ones parents want them to learn.
While no ironclad conclusion can be made as of yet, given the lack of hard data, it would appear that a nationwide trend towards race- and religion-directed bullying is developing in response to the intolerance and cruelty of today’s political climate. According to statistics provided by the Cyberbullying Research Center, 20% of students – or one in five children – report being bullied at school or online. However, those numbers may be higher in actuality, given that 64% of children elect not to report their mistreatment after it occurs. Moreover, the CRC further notes that while a definitive conclusion cannot be drawn yet, rates of race-related bullying appear to be increasing as a result of the anti-diversity discourse currently troubling our country. As horrifying as it might be, children are absorbing intolerant, hateful, and utterly unacceptable bullying behaviors from highly visible role models and stories in the media. In our television-and Internet-dependent culture, it’s become increasingly difficult for parents to moderate the influence of the figures children see represented on their screens.
However, parents shouldn’t give up hope quite yet. While good children do participate in instances of bullying, they often don’t understand or believe the hurtful words they use against their classmates. As Oregon principal Brent Emmons commented for a Buzzfeed review of race-targeted school bullying, “It’s middle school; it’s what you do because you’re right next to them […] I really don’t believe that 99% of the kids who were chanting [hateful speech] had any malice or hate in their hearts.” Emmons has faith that these children are only mirroring what they absorb from their surroundings; intolerance hasn’t yet settled into their personalities. Parents should take heart – their children can still grow up to be empathetic and kind adults.
The social conditions we face today put parents in a position where modeling respect, etiquette, and kindness is no longer enough. Now, caretakers need to go the extra mile by explaining to their children that the intolerance they see in their society is unacceptable, and by quickly responding to problematic behaviors before they take root. Otherwise, even the sweetest child might find it difficult to navigate our murky moral landscape and come out into adulthood unscathed.