It’s Anti-Bullying Week and this year’s theme is Stop and Think—Words Can Hurt.
Interestingly, for all our focus on how to stop kids from bullying each other, we have precious little research addressing what parenting styles are likely to produce bullies. Because, let’s face it, if your nine-year-old child is a bully, chances are very good you and/or the child’s other parent can take credit.
Experts are pretty much in accordance that an authoritative parenting style is the best way to go overall.
According to “Effects of Preschool Parents’ Power Assertive Patterns and Practices on Adolescent Development,” a 2010 article in the journal Parenting: Science and Practice, authoritative parents are “confrontive but not coercive.” Confrontive discipline, the article explains, is “firm, direct, forceful, and consistent,” whereas coercive discipline is “peremptory, domineering, arbitrary, and concerned with retaining hierarchical family relationships.”
Kids with authoritative parents turned out best in measurements that include:
(1) internalizing problems (e.g., anxious or fearful, fears specific objects, somatizes) and externalizing problems (e.g., argues a lot, bossy or bullying with peers, disobedient with parents), and (2) general personal maladjustment (e.g., eats poorly, immature, accident prone, socially disruptive, shy or timid, underactive, easily led by peers, gets teased a lot).
Authoritarian parenting has the worst outcomes, with permissive and disengaged parenting falling somewhere between the two.
The outcomes studied mention bullying , but do not appear to address the kind of Machiavellian behavior we think of as mean girls bullying (though boys do it too). Researchers call it “social aggression” or “relational aggression” and it includes spreading rumors, eye rolling and other expressions of disdain, and generally messing with another child’s social status.
Interestingly (and relevant to the Anti-Bullying Week theme) though, the article does identify hostile verbal criticism from parents as exceedingly damaging:
Vostanis, Nicholls, and Harrington (1994) found that maternal criticism distinguished a group of conduct disordered children from both a normal control group and a group of emotionally disordered children, and was also associated with subclinical problems in the normal control group. Conger and Conger (1994) found that children targeted for critical, sarcastic, harsh remarks were more likely than a sibling to manifest delinquent behaviors 2 years later. Johnson et al. (2001) found that verbal abuse during childhood predicted symptoms for 6 of 11 personality disorders during adolescence and adulthood, even after controlling for other likely predictors.
In the child development literature, “wounding words” that demean or belittle the child (Moore & Pepler, 2006) have been shown to be a potent contributor to children’s maladjustment (Johnson et al., 2001), even more so than physical punishment.
From this, can we hypothesize that relational aggression is even more damaging to children than pushing and shoving and stealing lunch money? If so, perhaps it should be singled out for study of not only how it functions in teen society, but also its origins.
How do mean girls and boys get that way? Spreading unkind rumors or showing obvious distain would seem to require a very specific type of maladjustment.
Does authoritarian parenting teach kids to be tyrants? Or does overly permissive parenting teach kids that they can have anything they want? Maybe disengaged parents, who neither expect a lot nor are particularly responsive to their children’s needs, teach kids to use subversive tactics to get their needs met.
Are mean kids the product of parental alienation syndrome, when one parent turns the child against the other parent during a divorce or other separation? Perhaps that teaches kids the power of social ostracism.
Is it a feeling of superiority (do my bidding, minions, or else) or inferiority (I feel big if I make you feel little)? Is it entitlement (I can do as I please) or its opposite (I can’t get what I want without subterfuge)?
Just think, if we can stop mean girls and boys before they start, we might be able to stem the flow of mean grownups, too. And mean bosses. Really, really mean bosses, like Steve Raucci, the petty tyrant whose incredible story I heard on This American Life.
How do people like that happen? I want to know, don’t you?