life in bedlam

Of Mean Girls and Prep School Pricks

What makes some people just plain mean? What forces in their psyche compel them to verbally and even physically attack someone?

These questions have been rolling around my head for a while. It started with some verbal bullying incidents my older son experienced earlier in the school year. “Why would anyone go to the trouble of taunting someone?” I thought. “What’s in it for them?”

I advocated for my son. I learned that the ringleader was herself a troubled girl. Of course. She had problems of her own. Her mom is really trying.

I’m sympathetic. How can I not be as the mom of a kid on the spectrum, after all?

Then another girl started calling my younger son names. He came home saying that he didn’t want to take the bus. It was such an about-face, he loved the bus. I pressed him for information and he told me about the girl. “She said I’m stupid,” he told me, “She says I’m retarded.”

The R word. Whoa. I went to the dean of students. We had a chat. Before the girl’s name had fully exited my mouth I could see from his face that he wasn’t surprised. A serial taunter. A habitual haranguer. He’s been working with her. She’s got issues of her own.

I’m less sympathetic now. Sure, one of my kids has issues, but it would never occur to him to use his considerable verbal skills to be intentionally mean and hurt someone’s feelings. It’s not in him. It’s not in his nature.

Recently, yet another girl starts popping up in conversations with my younger son at the end of the school day. This time, she’s a classmate, and he can’t avoid her. “She keeps saying ‘Cut your hair!’ every day, it’s ‘Cut your hair!'” he cries. I tell him that she has no right to comment on his appearance and it’s none of her business.

But he asks me to take him for a haircut. On top of her critiques, he’d been mistaken for a girl one too many times.

The next day he tells me this self-appointed school fashion cop said, “THANK YOU for cutting your hair!” I’m fuming on his behalf.

“What did you say?” I asked him. “Nothing out loud,” he replied, “But to myself I said something very inappropriate!

And now, there’s Mitt:

John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenaged son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

But Mitt didn’t wait for Mr. Lauber to cut his hair himself:

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

I texted my husband about Romney. “I hate him,” I said. “I wasn’t going to vote for him, but now I hate him.”

“Prep school prick,” he replied.

Troubled. Issues. Prep school prick. What motivates cruelty? How can someone lack enough empathy for a fellow human being, standing right in front of him or her? What convinces a person, in that moment, that speaking or behaving in a vicious and hurtful manner is a good idea?

I’m still waiting for an answer.


7 comments on “Of Mean Girls and Prep School Pricks

  1. Floor Pie
    May 10, 2012

    There’s no easy or single answer for that one. Impulse control? Pack mentality? Trying to please your dad like Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club? Who can say.

    Why do kids who are “troubled” or have “issues” do and say mean things? Again, impulse control. But more than that, it’s that schools persist in taking a reactive course of action, punishing after the fact instead of proactively working to establish a culture in which such meanness is less likely to happen.

    Anti-bullying programs, much as I appreciate their good intentions and their very existence, tend not to be entirely effective. Here’s why I think that is:

    – Too one-note. Just by calling it “Bully” you set it up to be an “Other.” Who would see themselves as a bully? Who would see their child or their favorite student as a bully? Bullies are bad! It discourages self-reflection. It implies that only bad people do bad things. They need to make it more about behaviors and less about labels.

    – Just like anti-obesity programs, they target the more vulnerable students and invite scapegoating. Kids quickly learn how to exploit the system and tease the less socially adept oucasts into hitting or lashing out physically, thereby getting *them* labeled as bullies.

    – The adults in charge of enforcing the policies bring their own baggage to it. What’s their bullied/bullying background? Don’t think for a minute that it doesn’t influence how they enforce policies or excuse behavior, whether they realize it or not.

    – I have yet to see an anti-bullying / empathy-building curriculum that is meaningful to students with Aspergers. (Even that Superflex thing annoys the hell out of The Boy.) There is a HUGE cultural divide between how Aspergians experience empathy and how the dominant culture expects them to do so. These kids get the worst of both worlds, because not only are they often picked on, but they’re also *mistaken* for bullies because of impulse control issues, low level frustration, etc.

    – School can generate a lot of stress and boredom. Kids turn to picking on each other as a way to release those tensions. They need to be more engaged. School needs to be more active, creative, and fun.

    – We need smaller freaking class sizes. Sorry Bill Gates, but we do. It is impossible to see every interaction, and the meanness toward each other can be fast and furious. It can turn on a dime.

  2. hgkwiatek
    May 10, 2012

    I agree with everything you said, but at the root of it is still the unanswerable. Why would someone exploit a less socially adept kid and convince him/her to do something mean? Why do some kids turn to picking on each other to release tensions whereas others select neutral or positive outlets? Why would someone choose cruelty as their operating stance instead of just being nice or indifferent?

    Jenny got at something interesting in the facebook comment thread about some of the positive rewards of cruel behavior.

  3. Floor Pie
    May 10, 2012

    Forgot the most important part: These kids who are troubled and have issues need social skills support from K on so they can MANAGE the impulse control and low level frustration that leads to unkind behavior. I had to really advocate for that and eventually change schools before my son got the support he needed. We shouldn’t have to do that.

  4. Floor Pie
    May 10, 2012

    H, before we look into those “whys” and Jenny’s theory (which I do agree with), I can’t emphasize enough that it really depends on the age. For preschoolers and younger elementary schoolers, it’s less about morality and more puppyish. They are learning, but they need a lot of guidance from adults. Being kind isn’t always a natural instinct, no matter how sweet and nice the individual child may be. I’ve seen both my kids be total jerks on playgrounds when they were little. Parents and teachers have to keep working on it — without judgment, without labels, without baggage. We can’t just leave them to their own devices and then be SHOCKED when they’re mean to each other. They need the tools and lots of practice.

    Why are older kids mean to vent boredom or stress? Why are they mean to feel powerful? Because being mean is easy. It’s right there in front of you. It gets a big reaction. It makes the adults mad and makes them take notice. In part, I think it’s because as a culture we *give* meanness such power. I don’t know how to turn that around. It may not be possible. And if it’s so deeply, deeply engrained in the culture, is it really a choice?

    Remember that chapter in Nurtureshock that talks about TV violence? The study found that kids who watched violent TV did NOT become more violent. However, kids who watched “very important lesson” TV like Berenstain Bears DID become more socially aggressive to each other. Why? Because shows like that devote more minutes to setting up the problem (bullying! drama!) than they do to showing the solution. This shit runs deep, I tell you.

    Speaking of Nurtureshock, there’s another chapter that talks about teen brains vs. adult brains, and how they really, truly need more stimuli to feel rewarded, and how peers’ opinions are hugely important at this age. And that’s *brain chemistry,* not a choice. Any choice they make to the contrary is fighting pretty hard upstream.

    I was a lot meaner at 12, even at 18, than I am now. The difference between me and Mitt is, I’m truly sorry about it (and not running for President).

    • Floor Pie
      May 10, 2012

      Also…I never assaulted anybody. Geez.

  5. hgkwiatek
    May 10, 2012

    Right, you never assaulted anyone. Neither did I,nor, I’m certain, the majority of people who were raised in this culture.

    I remember that study about kids who watched Arthur and the Berenstain Bears being more socially agressive. So ironic. Yet I still can’t curb my instinct to avoid a lot of violent media with my kids.

  6. hgkwiatek
    May 10, 2012

    I should add that my son who is on the spectrum has said verbally cutting things while in the midst of meltdowns. It’s clear in that moment that he’s very hurt and upset and so he might tell me he hates me for instance. But to calmly approach someone on the bus or in the lunch room and tell them they’re weird or stupid or they need to cut their hair, or (in the case of someone I know) that nobody likes you?

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This entry was posted on May 10, 2012 by in bullying, Mitt Romney.

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