Updated: Jul 2, 2019
Bullies, we would suppose with confidence, are not what we want our children to be and yet we hear, too often, that bullies have triggered another death of a child-target. The death of a child? How is that even possible that such cruelty on the part of children exists? Where did they learn this or is it inherent in all of us and are we socialized to suppress this demonlike quality on our part?
Today, I heard of the suicide of a ten-year-old boy who killed himself in a closet in his home. He had many medical problems and had to wear a colostomy bag and was relentlessly bullied as a result. The pain proved too much for him and he sought the only relief he knew; death.
Animals, innumerable TV shows tell us, are cruel and cunning, but what are they really? Prey is hunted for survival and cruelty is in the eye of the beholder, not the mind and thinking of the survivor-predator. We ascribe emotions and thoughts where words are absent and, in our eagerness to understand, we are entering into unknown and, perhaps, never-to-be-known territory.
Are children inherently cruel or do they learn it? Modeling the behavior of adults, we know, is one way children learn and, if cruelty exists, is that what children model? Mocking, hissing, outlandish behavior is evident too frequently in our everyday lives as we can attest to by simply turning on news programs or switching to select Youtube channels. Why? The media carries it because it's a type of "bread-and-circus" that means ratings.
Research into cruelty in children has, for the most part, sought to factor out where it might emanate and what might provide the fuel for this behavior. Some say, when examining cruelty of children toward animals, it is curiosity and not true cruelty that drives it. Too many times, as a psychologist, I have heard and seen how childhood cruelty toward animals develops into brutish and violent behavior in adults.
A prime example of the evolution of cruelty toward animals leading to stalking and killing adults is the case of Jeffrey Dahmer. He began, as a lonely and seemingly neglected child, expressing a fascination with animal anatomy which he satisfied by picking up and dissecting road kill as well as capturing insects in bottles. Of course, one of our most famous presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, was an avid animal collector and anatomist.
Dahmer never actually killed, in reports, or was cruel to animals, by published accounts, but he did go on to kill his first victim when he was 18 and just out of high school. He also dissected their bodies. In all, he killed and brutalized 17 victims during his life.
No one is saying that children who are cruel or are interested in anatomy or who act as bullies will grow up in the model of Dahmer, but it does point out how early attachment can be primary in adult personality psychological formation. Unfortunately, the question of childhood attachment to their mothers has received mixed reactions from various sectors of society. A 1949 book I once came across blamed women going to work, during WWII when there was a labor shortage, for the ills of children.
In a world where women are entitled to establish themselves in careers, they are still held to a higher standard when it comes to child rearing. However, the result of women working out of the home has not been a harvest of children who harbor the qualities seen in "The Bad Seed" with its narcissistic, child murderer who lies constantly and is doted on by an upstairs neighbor. Actor Patty McCormack's performance, it's been reported, was so convincing and disturbing that she was forevermore typecast and couldn't get roles in films or commercials.
The fault, if we try to find one, here may be that the role of men hasn't been given equal attention in terms of forming healthy attachment to their children. Of course, the argument may be made that empathic children do come from families where their father are often traveling for work or are home infrequently.
Do moms make up for the lack of the father in the home? Single-mother families can do just fine, so it's more a question of being raised in a home with a value for life, a sense of self control and the rights of others. The single adult parent, whether male or female, doesn't appear to turn the child into a sociopathic adult.
How, then, do schools play a role in the development of character in children? Children may spend more time with their teachers than their parents and this has to have a major impact on how they view themselves as well as others. Does the school ignore unacceptable behavior or does it immediately address it in an appropriate manner? What happens to bullies to either help or further inflame them?
If a school is comprised of either all male or all female children or children of one ethnicity and religion, what is the effect? Is there a subtle or not-so-subtle emphasis on superiority of some type and the diminution of others? In boys' schools, are girls seen as "females" and not girls? Words have power and doing a content analysis of the language used in the schools might prove to be an interesting, if somewhat limited, experiment. But it would be useful for that school in particular. Just as it would be to do so in a corporation.
Everyone has a role in society when it comes to modeling the behavior of children to insure it is healthy and in the common good. I cannot forget the words of John Donne. "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent..."