Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On Being a Mean Mum (and Defining Bullying)

"He cut Charlie's ear, and he's driving him nuts!  Water won't hurt him; it will just remind him to stay off our porch."

"You know what you just cut, mom?  The line that connects us.  You are not my mother anymore in three...two....one.  That's it.  We're over."

My eight-year-old is mortified that I sprayed a visiting cat with water. My neighbourhood is full of wandering cats with good homes, so this is not likely a stray, but he's new to our porch.  And he's a vicious little bugger. It wasn't just my own cat's injuries that drove me to such malice.  The visitor scratched my daughter as she tried to pet it.  She's never been scratched by an animal before - so it was a personal affront as well as a physical shock.  For the record, she also terminated my matriarchal position when I insisted on washing the cuts - with soap even - and coating them with polysporin, which, apparently, soothes like battery acid.

Our (Slightly) Wounded Charlie
The Visitor

My daughter's threatened estrangement  illustrates a larger cultural need to clarify the difference between bullying (cruelty and being mean in general) and setting and enforcing limits or consequences. I'm not actually convinced they're entirely different by kind or degree, but that one is acceptable only because it's a socially useful coercion.  We sometimes think of tactics of manipulation as entirely evil, yet we use them with our children and underlings regularly.  And that's okay.  I suggest that these tactics (isolation/time-outs, inducing guilt or shame, permitting minor discomfort, removing potential rewards,  criticizing, passing judgment, etc.) are the same used by bullies, but, in the right context, are beneficial.  And we shouldn't be made to feel like monsters for using them!

So, for instance, in negotiations, if one party suggests they want to lower salaries, and the other party indicates they'll stop doing any extra work then, some might call it using bullying tactics.  That's accurate - but it's also called negotiating. Suggesting an idea is flawed is a criticism, but it's necessary to provoke higher thought.  It's not always mean to criticize or judge others.  I think we need to really look at bullying in a different manner.

If we focus on the effect of our actions, as my daughter has, then every act that directly causes discomfort in any being is an act of meanness and must be punished.  I upset the visiting cat, so I'm denied my daughter's love.  Likewise, if I send her to her room for some transgression, since it upsets her, it must be a cruel act, and therefore I should be punished for it.  This is a typical childlike view of the situation with obvious problems.  On a grand scale, it leads to nobody being punished or restrained or criticized ever - even for heinous acts. That won't work.  And it's fun to play with the circularity of her arguments: when she refuses to acknowledge me it harms me, so therefore that action must also fit under her definition of cruelty, so isn't it the case that in fact she's being mean and should be punished?  It could lead to everyone being punished all the time.

If the difference rests in the intention, however, one concern is that a bully could get away with a harmful act by insisting he was just trying to be funny or he meant well by insisting being ostracized or bludgeoned or what-have-you is somehow for your own good.  Most of us have been there and know the sting of injustice when a truly mean spirit is clever enough to defend all transgressions and becomes the victim or hero in the eyes of the authorities - like my third grade teacher who, I swear, had a crush on the biggest jerk in the class.  He could swipe a girl's lunch, and the poor girl would get scolded for not being more willing to share.  It happens, and it sucks.

This excused intention can also be seen in the form of "tough love" - a term often used to mean being a jerk for a possible longterm benefit, but that's not what was originally intended because that's still being a jerk (and getting away with it).  The original idea behind tough love is to avoid aiding in someone's self-destructive behaviours.  If your kid's doing drugs, lock up your valuables and don't give them money, but you can still engage with them in non-drug-related conversation and activities.  It's not about denying affection or concern, just refusing to be co-dependent to a destructive dynamic.  It might mean kicking them out of the house if they're using the basement as a meth lab, but, as a surprising number don't get, it doesn't necessarily mean kicking kids out of the house because they're on the wrong path.  And the strategy is meant to stop your part in any dangerously destructive behaviours,  not behaviours you just don't like so much - like if your little one starts dating a douche-bag or is regularly late for curfew.

Some people are relentless bullies wearing out the claim of trying to improve people they know (aka busybodies).  The bully might get everyone to stop talking to the victim until she changes her hairstyle or boyfriend or homework-sharing policy.  This is why using mean tactics or setting limits (excluding in a time-out or otherwise refusing social attention) for a behaviour must be for a larger reason than the explicit benefit of a few people - and must be based on carefully considered and necessarily useful norms.

We sometimes need careful mediators to sort this all out - and unfortunately that often requires hearing the long story from both side which is both time-consuming and costly especially if it's taking place in a courthouse.  But surely we can establish a few ground rules at least.

1. If someone is causing or about to cause physical harm to a living thing, it's clearly acceptable to cause a lesser harm to that person (or cat) in order to stop or prevent further harm - particularly if they've invaded your property to do the harm and/or there's no way to just avoid the situation.  Sometimes it's acceptable to cause greater harm if the lesser harm doesn't do squat to stop the jerk.  So a series of skin-breaking scratches can reasonably lead to a few squirts of water to discourage further scratching or territorial invasions.  This rule follows an eye for an eye (the whole point of that story being that we may take no more than an eye).

What about forgiving the animal and turning the other cheek?  I had a friend who got cat-scratch fever, and he almost lost his hand. It isn't pretty, and it isn't worth the risk.  We can forgive the wild nature of the animal yet still act to prevent further harm.  In fact, by watering the cat, we're helping keep the cat from the temptation of shredding our appendages.  Same goes for incarcerating dangerous offenders.

It's important to recognize what's within our control and what isn't.  If it's within our abilities to stop or prevent acts of harm, then it's unethical to do nothing and lazily or ignorantly allow them to continue or flourish.  It's sometimes tricky to know what's within our abilities, though, so I err on the side of possible.  This is why I send so many letters to politicians who keep ignoring climate change in favour of big business needs.

2. But is it possible to determine, in a general but universal way, what behaviours should be limited for the benefit of society and in a way that makes it possible to avoid bullying?  We want children to stop pitching fits when they're frustrated, so we send them to sit on a chair or go to their room or, if you're a pro, look at them disapprovingly.  It's necessary - or at least very pleasant - to have a society of people reasonably in control of their rage.  The kids aren't hurting anyone by shrieking publicly; they're just annoying people and embarrassing their folks.  But more important is the potential long term scenario of adults shrieking publicly because they were never reprimanded for it as a child.

We can use Kant's categorial imperative on this one for fun:  If everyone were to be sent to a time-out any time they yelled in a public place, would that benefit society?  I think it would - especially if adults are made to comply.

BUT what if the adults are shrieking (directed vocalizing?) in order to get control over a mob of people?  So maybe we need a loophole (which Kant would never allow), that sometimes it's okay if, for a good reason, people need to hear and follow your instructions.  I hate being yelled at, but, if I was in an out-of-control mob trying to escape an alien attack, I might welcome direction.  I'd probably be okay with being pushed or pulled to safety too.  But what if adults are yelling because they think they need to, but they just haven't exercised other options because yelling and using force (and spray bottles) are the fastest short-term ways to alter behaviour.  Then the line has been crossed.  The problem with intention-based ethics is, from the outside, it's almost impossible to know the true intentions.

The acts in themselves don't define the cruelty, just the intention does.  But the intention can so easily be corrupted and misappropriated.  If a kid raises her voice to clarify a point, and the parent is tired, the parent might feel within rights to send the kid to her room for the rest of the day just to catch a break - under the guise of teaching manners.  We see this kind of stuff all the time.  It's not just a matter of abuse of authority.  Our temperaments shift and what we find acceptable shifts with how we're feeling, so people can get told off or ostracized for behaviour that was previously tolerated, then feel bullied.  Then if they tell on their friend, and a zero-tolerance policy on bullying is in effect, that friend could end up expelled.  Without it a blanket rule, they might be friends again in a few months.

A better example of this conundrum is eco-harassment.  If children are asked to bring litterless lunches, and one little guy doesn't, and then the teacher publicly admonishes him for this, is that bullying?  One parent said it was.  When people are rude, it's reasonable to call them on it in a way that will likely alter that behaviour (temporary isolation, withdrawal of rewards, etc.) - but the definition of rude wavers dramatically.   And if we want to alter behaviours to benefit the planet, it's necessary to punish a whole new set of behaviours for being inappropriate.

Yes, it's better to reward before punish, but it's not always possible, and sometimes it really means the same thing.  If I try to reward that visiting cat with a treat whenever he doesn't scratch anyone for x minutes, then it will take up a huge amount of time to "catch him being good," require we put ourselves in the position of being potentially scratched, and likely mean he'll take up permanent residency on my porch.  If we reward a classroom of kids with treats because they brought a litterless lunch, then that one guy (with a busy mom) won't get a treat - that's still a punishment for him even though it's through a denial of a reward.    (It's a "negative punishment" in behaviour modification-speak.)

I lean towards avoiding punishing behaviour in favour of allowing people to hit their own natural consequences whenever possible.  It only works if there are effective natural consequences though.  Ignoring a four-year-old who isn't toilet trained because you think being around kids at school will be the motivation needed to train him might backfire if he's gotten really comfortable in Pull-Ups.  There are only certain circumstances where we can depend on natural consequences.

We're 70% of the way through the term at school, and I have a grade-ten student who has produced nothing.  He loves to draw, so I've altered every assignment for him so it can be based primarily on drawing.  He's made it clear (as have his parents) that he can't and mustn't be "nagged" into working.  If we bother/harass/bully him about missing work in any way, he'll get very angry.  My response:

"I've been careful not to nag you all term, but what can I do to help motivate you to get started on an assignment?"

"There's nothing you can do to motivate me.  You have to wait until I'm motivated myself, until I feel like doing the assignment.  Until then, there's nothing you can do."

"Okay.  I can wait all term.  But be aware that we're 70% of the way through the course, and so far you've got a zero on every assignment because you haven't felt like doing any work yet.  I can't just give you marks for showing up. Unless you start to feel like doing all the work soon, you'll have to sit through this course again next year."

He continued to draw anime characters.

If he fails, I'll have paperwork to do, and meetings to sit through.  I have to prove I did everything I could to help him pass the course.  I sometimes feel I have to allow extension on due dates right to the end of term which, kids soon figure out, translate to no due dates at all.  I even have to make sure I'm entertaining enough to be motivating.  It's not enough just to give creative assignments that will help kids learn some facts or skills.  And, at no point does he have to prove that he did anything to learn the content or practice the skills.  The system is geared towards provoking teachers to give marks that students didn't earn.

If the punishment of being hassled is greater than the punishment of writing a paragraph, then a paragraph will be written.  The punishment of a failing mark is too far away to motivate some kids.  The distance in time makes it an abstract punishment.  And the reality that they sometimes get away with doing almost nothing makes it an uncertain punishment.

Like my daughter, he thinks that if I nag him to work, I'm being mean.  Other students in the past have complained to me that teachers bullying them to do work.  And too often the students complain to parents who put the full blame on the teacher.  Or, worse, the student takes all the work home, and it's magically completed overnight.

I'm a bully if I hassle him, but negligent if I don't.  Developing a work ethic and learning strategies to cope with work people don't enjoy is useful to each person and necessary in society.  Even a dream job will likely have some tasks that are tedious yet must be finished within a set time-frame.  I'm banking on natural consequences teaching this one - eventually, but I volley back and forth on whether something more immediate is necessary. This guy's likely going to fail with me regardless the accommodations I've attempted to implement.  A more punishing teacher might get the work done this term.   It's amazing how some kids' work ethic improves dramatically when they're working for money instead of marks, so I'm not too worried about the bigger picture - it's just getting him through school and finding a way to convince him, and his parents, that badgering kids to do work during class time can be good for them.

Society gains from people following rules of social decorum, mastering self-control, doing work that improves their minds, and developing dependable work habits.  Acts that influence these traits are necessary even if they make people (and cats) feel bad or restrict their freedoms in the short term.   The world will be a better place for our efforts - and maybe that's when you know you've got it right.  

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