Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bullying and The Battle of the Head and the Heart

When my son was in grammar school, I approached the principal of his school and proposed to teach the staff, the faculty and the students an emotional literacy curriculum free of charge, because the lack of attention to emotional literacy in our school system (and our culture) creates countless problems as children grow older and in the adult world as well.

I was told, "Yes, emotional literacy is a good thing. We just don't have time for something like this." Even in 4th grade, I saw bullying behavior develop, and because kids have no language, modeling or boundaries for "respectful" conflict. If one child wanted to provoke a classmate, saying mean things, poking, punching, hitting or stealing a pencil quickly escalated into all-out, uncontained primal behavior.

In one incident, when several boys were pinching and poking my son, and stealing his pencil, when Alex used "appropriate skills" for drawing boundaries, saying no, and telling the boys to please stop, he might as well have been speaking Serbo-Croatian. "Appropriate skills" only encouraged the boys to pinch harder and move to punching. Alex recognized the only way to stop the bullying was to meet the boys on their own level: the physical. So, he kicked the ringleader in the shin, where the boy already had a wound. It worked. The bullying stopped.

The only problem was that Alex was sent to the principal's office for disciplinary action. This is so typical of what happens in schools. The boys who were bullying, got off "scott free," and the kid who finally fought back got punished. This makes no emotional sense. In fact, it is emotionally illogical.

But somehow, in disciplinary matters, there is an intellectual rhetoric that seems to miss the heart of the matter. If a child who has developed "appropriate conflict management" skills is thrown in with kids who are emotionally illiterate, the conflict operates at the lowest common denominator.

This school, which did not have time for the emotional literacy program I offered to bring was spending countless time on behavioral problems that intellectual rhetoric was never going to solve.

As a child I used to say, "hearts can hear heads, but heads often cannot hear hearts." Heads can be "headstrong" and stubborn and think their point of view is "right" or the only way, ignoring or missing that there are other points of view. Hearts are more open to all the possibilities, and bring a greater sense of equity and fairness to a challenging situation. Rather than "either/or" and "judgment," hearts embrace a "both/and" and "understanding" point of view.

How much could this boys learn if someone would slow them down, and teach them to listen to their bodies and hearts, and ask WHY were they pinching, stealing and punching in the first place? And what might be the cost of this behavior to their relationships with others, and even themselves?

If the boys needed to establish a "pecking order of dominance," might there not be healthier ways to compete and EARN a position of respect? Can one not rise through right action, not just brute force? There is a very different outlook of the head and the heart.

Mind you, there is a time and place for most everything. And rather than being at war, might the head and heart not benefit from playing on the same team? Is it not worth the time we save addressing the growing litany of bullying situations, if we teach our kids emotional literacy skills from the start? Doesn't it take a lot more time helping a kid heal from trauma or recover from pain than to create an environment where trauma and its resultant pain are just not necessary in the first place?

While some adult men might say, "the only way to put a bully in his place is to throw him up against the wall and make him scared," I would counter, "in the short term, the behavior might stop, but in the long-term, does this not perpetuate another generation of bullies?"

How do we teach our children, and one another heartful and heathful ways to manage conflict?
How do we help each other learn that there are as many points of view as people? How do we help each other realize that if we work together and share our resources, we are all better off than by continuing the competition of the dog-eat-dog world?

Until we are able to let the heart have its rightful place at the table, we are all likely to be casualties of the battle of the head and the heart.

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