Note: Erika Leonard is a Senior Program Leader and Master Instructor for Kidpower. In the following post, she describes Kidpower’s approach to teaching adults how help children to build Positive Peer Interaction skills.
Kids are born with the power to think, make noise, and move. They have it from the moment they start breathing, and the power belongs to them. As adults, we can help them learn to use that power well and responsibly. If we choose to let them just figure it out on their own, we can expect them to cause a lot of damage along the way.
Children experiment with their power, and this experimentation is normal. Very young children might scream, kick, hit, or clamp their mouths shut. After just a few years, children discover the power of their words and say things like, “I don’t want to be your friend.” Not long after, they will likely discover that words have power through name-calling and gossip. They will also figure out that silence has another kind of power when it’s used to ignore or shun another child.
Learning how to control our inborn “kidpower” takes time. Learning to control that power responsibly, to make situations better and safer rather than worse and more dangerous, takes consistent guidance from adults over many years.
Given how much power children have, and given how many years it takes to learn to use that power well, it’s no surprise that bullying behavior crops up in groups of kids everywhere.
Common People Safety problems often referred to as bullying that happen when young people misuse their power with peers and siblings include shunning, teasing, excluding, kicking, hitting, threatening, name-calling, gossiping, taunting, ganging up, beating up, leaving out, ‘backbiting’, texting, sexting, flaming, and all other forms of bullying and cyber-bullying.
The process of experimenting with power is developmentally normal, which does not mean that the actual behavior is safe or appropriate. Adults have every reason to expect that bullying behavior is likely to occur in any group of young people, and adults should expect to see even more of these problems in contexts like schools, where many people with very little experience managing their own poer are together every day in a very small space with a comparatively small number of adult leaders.
Though we often hear adults say, “Let them work it out themselves,” we have frequently seen this approach result in problems growing quickly out of control. In our experience, quick, consistent, compassionate, and clear adult leadership is crucial to stop problems from growing and to prevent isolated incidents of bullying behavior from giving rise to ongoing or chronic behavior that is destructive or damaging, that becomes a regular part of a peer group’s way of interacting with each other, or that mushrooms into a major safety problem because of email, texting, and the Internet.
Mistakes are part of learning, and young people will make mistakes as they learn to use their power. Some mistakes cause small problems; others can cause serious damage or injury, especially if they involve wide-reaching technology like phones and the Internet. Adult guidance, supervision, boundaries, and mentoring are crucial for managing kids’ smaller mistakes and for preventing significant, damaging ones.
Young people misusing power need calm, consistent adult guidance and firm, consistent boundaries so that they learn the consequences of their behavior; they learn ways to be powerful without causing damage; the damaging behavior stops and others are safe; and so that all kids in a group are confident that the adults in charge “walk their talk” and truly do put physical and emotional safety first with their actions, not just with their words.
At Kidpower, we encourage adults to take charge of leading young people in developing Positive Peer Interaction skills. This means that they step in right away children are using power in a way that is damaging, whether they call it bullying or not — just as they would stop a child from using a hammer or scissors in a way that was unsafe or inappropriate. They step in with the recognition that the fact that the behavior sprouted in the first place may be normal, but allowing it to continue is absolutely unacceptable. The adult then puts the focus on practice of pro-social behaviors we want young people to develop.
Children who are the targets of bullying behavior need opportunities to practice all they ways they can use their power to stay safe and to get help. They need reassurance that the responsibility of maintaining an environment that is physically and emotionally safe is entirely an adult responsibility. We teach kids and adults skills they can use to notice, avoid, get away from, and talk about safety problems and to persist until they get help. We give adults opportunities to practice listening and taking charge appropriately and realistically.
Children who are using their power in ways that cause damage need adult intervention. Research shows that bullying behavior in a peer group can be socially rewarded; leaving the problem to resolve itself is likely to result in bigger problems and more damaging and destructive behavior. Just as a child using any tool dangerously and inappropriately deserves adult support to keep everyone safe, a child using social-emotional power in a destructive way deserves swift, caring, firm adult intervention to prevent that behavior pattern from continuing or becoming chronic.
Children who are witnessing inappropriate uses of power deserve the opportunity to practice a broad spectrum of safety choices they could make while being free from unrealistic adult expectations that they engage in behaviors on principle that might put them in very real danger.
Adults have years of life experience to draw on to decide when they are willing to put themselves at risk in order to stand up for what they believe in. Many young people choose to do this, too. But, telling a child that he or she MUST or SHOULD take an action in the face of bullying when that behavior puts them at risk of retaliation is unfair and unrealistic and is unlikely to address the problem. Sometimes, the best way to support someone who is the target of bullying behavior is to leave quickly and quietly and to get help.
For more information on how to teach “People Safety” skills to the children and teens in your life, and how to learn these skills for yourself, visit our website Library and Store, or take one of our Workshops. Our new e-book, Bullying – Kidpower “People Safety” Solutions, will be available later this month for $12 per copy. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.