Almost nothing evokes more fear and dread in parents today than the omnipresent specter of social cruelty and bullying. Schoolyard bullying, combined with the seemingly inescapable online universe of hurt, has become part of the fabric of life today for kids and their parents. At least a third of kids report having been bullied recently—2.7 million incidents being reported each year. Bullying knows no age, gender, economic, or ethnic bounds, though LGBTQ victims are four times as likely as others to be targets. As the media increasingly report, cyber-bullying has led to high-profile suicides of children at every grade level from elementary to high school. There have been incidents in which families have moved to other towns to get away, only to have the ostracism and even death threats begin anew. Social cruelty is reported in every gathering of professionals I teach. By age 4, nursery-school kids are forming exclusionary in-groups—“kindergarten-cool,” as I call it. A group of high-school students recently went online to encourage a despondent peer “to end it already” and finally jump from his roof, as he’d been threatening to do for weeks.
Social cruelty and bullying have always evoked strong reactions in my audiences, but it used to be that bullying triggered vociferous battles between the parents of presumed perpetrators and those of their alleged victims. Lately, however, I’ve noted that most parents identify with each other, recognizing that with a 24/7 gossip cycle, none of them has any real control over what their kids do, or what’s done to them. Because of this shared vulnerability, parents direct harsh words less at each other and more toward school personnel and child professionals for their perceived ineptitude in addressing the bullying problem. Since most studies reveal that kids go to us adults for help and end up feeling we don’t know what to do either, it’s striking how little formal training we receive in this area. It’s understandable that parents seek help elsewhere.
I recently consulted about Ian, an otherwise ordinary 7th-grader in a suburban public school in the Pacific Northwest. Things had gone missing from kids’ backpacks, and as thefts continued, Ian worried he might be the next target. After talking it over with his stepmom, who wanted him to “do the right thing,” he told the guidance counselor. The counselor then made a classic mistake: somehow, he let the word out that Ian was the person who’d “ratted.” For almost a year, every boy in his class taunted him. What was striking and post-boomerish was that the girls were equally relentless, assuring Ian, in case he had any thoughts otherwise, that no one in the school liked him. “Why don’t you just die?” one after another remarked.
When I consulted the school officials, no one had any answers, other than to briefly suspend the perpetrators, implement prepackaged social-emotional interventions, mediate, and hope for the best. In fact, the principal and guidance counselors said they’d appreciate any help they could get. By contrast, Ian’s parents, furious at this ineptitude, told me about numerous “bully-sites” that assist mothers and fathers to help each other. I was stunned to discover the extent of the practical suggestions and concrete action steps parents (and increasing numbers of professionals) offered, which I then shared with school officials. In the end, finding one key “popular” boy to approach Ian in a friendly way changed the tide and let him slowly emerge from the hell of middle-school ostracism.
To the extent kids feel abused socially and academically, their parents feel abused and held hostage by fears of what might become of their children. The integrity of almost every parent I work with is undermined by catastrophic scenarios of how his or her child will be dragged under. One dad is afraid that if he doesn’t offer praise for shoddy effort on a term paper, his son will stop functioning and fail in school. A mom fears that telling a guidance counselor about the excessive drinking of her daughter’s best friend will destroy her child’s social standing forever. A father believes that if he tries to teach the value of “moderation,” his teen will become even more oppositional and refuse to come home at night. A mom is scared that if she follows through on grounding her 11-year-old from a birthday party, the girl might be excluded from weekend play dates.
While all this can sound absurd, a chronic sense of being held hostage by kids and the culture at large helps explain why parents so often show up in our offices looking and sounding like spineless wimps. With so little time to bond with their children, parents are afraid to take even one step that could drive them farther away, undermine their already shaky school performance, and ruin their chances for social success when little else seems to matter. Not surprisingly, a multibillion-dollar public and private enterprise monetizes these insecurities by selling a raft of social modules and remediation services—including tutors and homework helpers for the well-heeled and supplemental educational materials designed to jack up reading and math scores. The issue isn’t just parental abdication, but what I call the “merchandising of childhood,” based on a deep-rooted fear of failure.
Cynics and Refuseniks
In a tightening economy, with overcrowded feeder-schools and an uncertain future ahead, it’s easy to understand why kids aren’t enthusiastic about school. College is so exorbitantly expensive that students frequently drop out, unable to pay the tab. And if they do manage to graduate, young adults still face high unemployment and skyrocketing living expenses, which often drive them back home, still owing thousands of dollars in student loans. No wonder many kids I meet do the mental calculation of all the money and effort and decide not to kill themselves trying. “Is it really worth it?” they ask. Besides, instead of this potentially unrewarding grind, many of them harbor a new 21st-century, techno-driven fantasy. When I inquire about their hopes for the future, I often hear them earnestly voice expectations that a single YouTube gone viral or a cell-phone app or a reality TV part will instantly “explode” them into a life of bling.
Kids notice that many schools have been forced to drop programs and facilities (music, art, physical education, libraries) because of mass layoffs and underfunding, while better positioned, more “competitive” schools in more affluent areas have turned into deadly serious, four-year cram-courses geared to standardized tests. In either case, as numerous studies show, play, imagination, and downtime have been crowded out, and with them, the time for the young brain to synthesize and actually learn what’s been taught. Whether it’s “No Child Left Behind” or “Race to the Top,” parents feel that they and their kids are victims of a kind of educational and social scam, and are deeply cynical about a system that treats kids as if they’re commodities. They see the top 5 to 10 percent, mostly from the wealthiest families, making it to elite colleges, thanks to private schooling and “legacy” admissions, as well as a multibillion-dollar infrastructure of tutors, special courses and study-abroad opportunities, and parent-funded “community service” points. Meanwhile, lower- and middle-class parents have no or limited access to such “helping hands” so readily available to the privileged.
This cynicism is fed by the recognition of widespread cheating. In fact, with the vagaries and hard-to-trace sources available via Internet study, many faculty groups I’ve spoken with describe how difficult it is to draw a clear line between what’s truth and what’s plagiarism. For many kids—with the implicit collusion of their parents—cheating is no longer considered a moral issue, but rather a necessity. Some families engage in cheating with a sense of complete justification; after all, as they experience it, the system has already been gamed beyond recognition. Recent allegations of kids for hire to take others’ exams, along with widespread systemic tampering by adult educators to lift achievement test scores, only strengthen parental irreverence for the school system.
Cassie showed up in my supervisee’s office having been out of school for a year. Sure, her mother was deeply unhappy with her intransigence about attending school, but, after several courses of unsuccessful psychotherapy focusing on the issue, had almost come to agree with her daughter’s decision to stay home. Cassie was ornery, like many teens, but mostly respected the limits set by her mother. Except for that pesky little detail of not attending school, her life appeared normal. Through texts, e-mail, Facebook, and personal contact, she kept up with her friends and continued to be a self-respecting citizen of her peer group’s pop-culture world, spending most of the day online or watching TV.
As I heard her therapist’s reports, I understood that Cassie’s choice was borne not primarily from some pathology, but out of a desire to remove herself from the viselike grip of her suburban high school. There was too much gossip, and everyone “up in her grill” noticing the smallest details, most of which would end up online anyway. Plus, she was faced with a college-preparation process so unrelenting in its subversion of self-esteem that she decided not to engage in it. The therapist finally understood that Cassie had made a decision to go her own way, and that her mother, after fighting deep disappointment, was ultimately advocating for this choice. After spending a great deal of time struggling with self-blame, Cassie’s mom had learned to support an alternate path: her daughter would work toward an online diploma from a for-profit school.
Xavier is another good case study. In 9th grade, he began hanging out with his posse of likeminded dudes, smoking and drinking every day, lost in the video games “World of Warcraft” or “Call of Duty,” and gradually racking up one absence after the other. His working-class parents, steeped in hopes that he’d go further in life than they had, often blew up and tried to set limits. But as angry as they were at him, they were angrier at the school. Xavier had accumulated more than 40 absences and late arrivals before anyone had bothered to notify them. At the parent–teacher conferences, the dean expressed some alarm, but never suggested a plan of action or followed up in any way. Indeed, Xavier’s mother and father got the impression that the school thought the problem was somehow their fault, and that they should do something about it.
And who could entirely blame the school personnel? Overwhelmed by statewide and national demands, along with overcrowding, how much time could they realistically give to yet another boy who preferred to smoke weed and play video games? After several courses of stimulants, evaluations, and therapists who warned them about their not being strong enough, Xavier’s parents ended therapy and sent him to a newly established public charter school, from which he eventually graduated.
Cassie’s and Xavier’s families aren’t alone in their distrust of the school system. The number of kids being home-schooled has grown almost threefold in just five years. More extreme alternatives are becoming more popular, too—wilderness programs, for example. A few years ago, there were 30 wilderness possibilities; today there are more than 300. Every therapist I know has sent several patients off to such a program. The thought of sending kids away used to go against the grain for me, but now I see it differently. In some cases, by removing children from impossible situations, wilderness programs can succeed where other interventions fail.
Paul, failing in school, unmotivated, resentful, and the recipient of a list of diagnoses from a half-dozen therapists and psychiatrists, including AD/HD, depression, ODD, and social anxiety disorder, had taken to smoking away his sorrows. In fact, weed calmed him, structured his thinking, and masked his severe social anxieties. The more he smoked, the cooler he became, attracting the other stoners in the school. Finally, fed up with endless diagnoses, multiple medication trials, and unsuccessful attempts at individual and family therapy, Paul’s mom decided she’d take matters into her own hands and try a tough-love approach.
With her brother’s help, she grounded her son on weekends for three months, cut off all spending money, and forcibly separated him from most of his technology. Being a resourceful 21st-century teen, however, Paul fought back, employing a wide range of modern tactics: he communicated by texting at 3 a.m., paid for his dope by doing other kids’ homework, and snuck out at night, returning before dawn. The adults matched every move with more stringent rules, but it finally became clear that more drastic action was needed. After some handwringing on everyone’s part, two burly escorts descended on the home one night to escort Paul to a ranch in the mountains of Utah to be with boys in similar circumstances and a set of surrogate parents. After some time away, he returned home, graduated from high school, and began community college—not what was initially hoped for, but, given the alternatives, a preferred outcome nonetheless.