Bullies = bullies, children =/= sociopaths and other simple equations

This morning I read Kate Harding’s post on the death of Tyler Clementi and why we should never make excuses for bullies. Much of her post is bang on the money: there is no excuse for bullying behaviour and anyone who willingly engages in it doesn’t deserve to be defended as a ‘really nice kid’. If you’re a vicious bully, you’re not a nice kid. That’s pretty obvious.

Kate Harding’s searing anger comes through in her post and that resonates with me because I’m angry too. I’m still angry about the bullying I suffered in my childhood. More than angry.

There is a lot to support in her post and I sure was nodding along until I came to this line:

Maybe it’s true that some youthful bullies just haven’t yet outgrown the natural tendency of children to be basically sociopathic…

Basically sociopathic? Really, Kate? Children are natural sociopaths?

At two years old, Bean is still developing her capacity for empathy. She doesn’t yet have the cognitive ability to ‘put herself in someone else’s shoes’ or to reason through all of the consequences of her actions. Even so, she shows concern when others are distressed, she shows affection and practices impulse control when she can in order to share and take turns. She actively comforts adults and other children, offering cuddles and sympathy. Just like the other toddlers and preschoolers and school-aged children that I know do. They are not adults and don’t (can’t) think and behave exactly like adults. But that doesn’t make them sociopathic.

Of course, Harding didn’t really mean that all children have anti-social personality disorder. No doubt she was just using sociopath as short-hand for often self-centred, sometimes lacking in impulse control, and unable to forsee or take responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions (all things that could be said are natural traits of children – or rather, traits of people who are still developing the cognitive skills needed to be considerate, restrained and forward-thinking). I mean, applying the label “sociopath” – a word most commonly heard in reference to adult bullies and abusers and even serial killers – to all children, isn’t hurtful or negative or prejudicial at all, right?

Um, wrong.

I whole-heartedly agree that bullies, whatever their age, should be called to account. I am sympathetic to the commenters on Harding’s piece who call for parents to take a more active role in not only protecting their children from bullies but in ensuring that their children don’t engage in bullying behaviour. I see no benefit in pretending that all children and young adults are sweetly innocent all of the time – even our own children. There is only so much that can be achieved by providing support to victims; to end bullying we also need to go after the bullies and call their behaviour what it is. Even if they are ‘basically good kids’ the rest of the time. Even if we love them.

But the way to help children and young adults who are bullied (and the enabling bystanders and the perpetrators, who also need our help in the form of intervention and teaching) is to listen to them. Despite what one of Harding’s commenters calls the “deification of children” (where on earth that is actually happening I don’t even know) young people are too often silenced or dismissed in our culture. I know: when I was victimised as a child, it was enabled by adult bystanders who failed to step in. When I was bullied, it was the adults who wouldn’t take my pain seriously who not only allowed it to keep happening but who exponentially increased my feelings of powerlessness. What is the point of teaching children to ‘tell an adult’ when they need help if adults, for whatever reason, will not even listen to them?

And how, in a culture where it is okay – where it is a joke – to call children sociopaths, can we expect that children will feel listened to? How can we encourage bystander adults to alter their attitudes so that they no longer see bullying as a sign that ‘kids will be kids’ and but rather something which can be prevented, something against which we all should be fighting?

In her piece, Harding anticipates some of the push-back she might get for her anti-child language. (Makes sense – she’s been called on it before).

I’m sure I will hear (or, well, would hear, if I left the comments open for long) that it’s practically criminal to think of any child, even a hypothetical one, as a “total fucking asshole,” and the fact that I could use such abusive language with regard to a child makes it clear that I don’t have children — which we all know is downright unnatural for a lady of almost 36 — so probably no one should ever listen to me about anything. But you know what? Fuck that.

The thing is, this is not what is problematic here. I agree – the girls who bullied Kate Harding so viciously in school were arseholes. I agree that whether or not she has children of her own should be irrelevant to her ability to address this issue in her writing. And I agree that sometimes, when it comes to consciously committed cruelty, no matter how young the perpetrator, the only appropriate response to such completely awful behaviour is righteous anger.

But you can’t call for more vigilance, transparency and action against young bullies without also calling for more respect for young people. It is precisely because adults feel safe and justified in expressing anti-child sentiments like “[children are] basically sociopathic” – that is, precisely because children are marginalised in our culture – that bullying is allowed to flourish in institutions like schools. If you don’t feel that children deserve personhood, or the same respect as any other group of humans, (and I would argue that whacking a negative label on them, using sarcastic jibes about their behaviour and showing hostility towards those that would defend them is, um, disrespectful) then how can you argue that their pain matters and that their voices should be heard? The very same people who call being bullied ‘character building’ are the people who wish to maintain the status quo, a situation where children are not well protected. Much bullying is physical assault. Some bullying is sexual assault. Some bullying is stalking, stealing, or some other form of crime and yet, these crimes go unpunished because they were committed not only by, but against, young people. When teachers, parents, school administrators and other adults don’t wish to acknowledge the seriousness of bullying they are not only minimising the crimes committed — they are not only failing to say, as Harding does, that bullies are “fucking assholes” — they are also minimising the value and agency of the victim. They are also saying that because the victim is a child or young person, hir pain is less real than an adult’s and hir right to justice is subsequently curtailed. And they wouldn’t say that if they didn’t believe that young people were lesser.

They wouldn’t minimise bullying in the first place if they weren’t the kind of people who can read a little joke about children being sociopathic, and laugh.

64 Comments

Filed under Feminism, Motherhood and Parenting, Musings, Reflections and Rantings

64 responses to “Bullies = bullies, children =/= sociopaths and other simple equations

  1. I’m actually physically applauding. Thank you so much for writing this. I hadn’t even read Kate’s piece yet, but I have found so much anti-children stuff in the Feminist/FA blogosphere in general and it always chaps my ass. So thank you.

  2. “How can we encourage bystander adults to alter their attitudes so that they no longer see bullying as a sign that ‘kids will be kids’ and but rather something which can be prevented, something against which we all should be fighting?”

    This, so very much this! I am constantly infuriated by the shrugging resignation some people express about the inevitability of bullying behaviour. As though there’s no point trying to stop kids doing it and the only option is to teach the victims to “cope” with it.

  3. Jonesy

    I can never really figure out or articulate why those sorts of comments bother me, but this has captured it perfectly.

    “It is precisely because adults feel safe and justified in expressing anti-child sentiments like “[children are] basically sociopathic” – that is, precisely because children are marginalised in our culture – that bullying is allowed to flourish in institutions like schools.”

    That part, in particular, really struck me when I read it. I had a vague notion of it before but had never stopped to really think about it in quite this kind of way. Thank you for writing this.

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  5. Short response: People who express and feel the way Kate does here have a lot of fear and anger. Many people choose to act on these impulses instead of doing better for the child class.

    You know that righteous anger you’re talking about? I feel a little now. Excuse me while I allow myself to express some compassion and intelligence but yeah… vent a little too.

    Everything you’ve said here is incredible. I hope more read here. I know Kate has not responded to those who’ve called her on this before. It’s a big disappointment as she has so much to offer.

    “deification of children” is a phrase like many others I’ve heard spoken by so many – parent, carer, and those without kids – who are scared of and resentful of children (and often responding to hurts of the past without taking responsibility for their role today). It also makes so little sense when you think of how children are institutionalized, beaten (as protected by law), talked down to, condescended to, forced, grabbed, laughed at, diminished – I don’t have time for it all here.

    Kate is wrong about lots but of note I include her implication that this is sort of a “parent” vs. “non-parent” issue, that she’s going to be beset upon by parents, because parents routinely don’t care about what childfree think, and the only parents who’d object are those who want to vilify her for not having children. No, she’s going to be called on it (at least by you and I) because she’s wrong and she’s reifying, as you say, the exact caste system that creates so much bullying amongst children in the first place.

    ALSO – she’s in good company as many, many parents/carers also believe wholeheartedly in their superiority to children and their rights over the vulnerable child class. Many of those without children feel bitter towards parents; would they be happier to know many parents believe as they do and are the arm of the law that continues the cycle? Ugh.

    Also of note is that some of the loudest pounding the table about how [some] kids are “assholes” (or that they’re all assholes until we train them out of it, right Kate? har har, hello poisonous pedagogy, also how 6 month old crying babies are “manipulative”, girls dressing up as Beyonce are “prostitots” and hookers, etc etc) are the people NOT doing the best and most effective work raising humane children.

    Maybe someday those of us who are doing the work of raising – not only our own kids but the neighbors’, who need our help, and doing a great job without resorting to diminishing and Authoritarianism whilst absolutely protecting the other children and the pets and whomever – maybe some day people like Kate – who has good intentions but is deep down wounded and afraid – will actually ASK us our perceptions, ideas and strategies (no really, I have them, and they work pretty good!). P.S. calling kids “sociopaths” isn’t the right way to go, nor is it funny, and the belief itself is so deeply problematic and exactly a huge part of the problem.

    Or these individuals can just keep wagging their fingers really hard and call kids “assholes”. Reminds me of my friend’s dog who would only pick fights with puppies.

    signed Kelly, a parent who lives consensually with her kids and nope, it’s not Lord of the Flies, and I invite you to spend time with my kids and see for yourself, and P.S., it’s been incredibly healing after the bullying/minimization I received as a child, and P.P.S. I’ve had to work my arse off to begin to shed the anti-child sentiment but I’m so glad I did, because my children help other people in need instead of calling them bad words whilst sticking up for those who need protection (it really isn’t mutually exclusive).

    Sorry for the Tolstoy-comment! Hope the venting is understood as just that – venting.

    Thanks for this piece.

  6. Wow, good blog. Just yesterday I posted a blog at my website about my own experiences dealing with bullies all through childhood leading up to adulthood, it’s affects and how I view the bullies now (and how I’m sure they view their past behaviors)

    I agree that likening children to sociopaths is laughable if it weren’t so silly. I guess though, I can understand her aggression. I also don’t have children (not that is neither here nor there) but I love children and I refuse to believe that children are the bloody spawn of the devil. Sometimes they are not sweet, they are not innocent and they can be downright cruel as I’ve experienced… call it idealism, but I really believe that in most cases, children don’t realise the lasting impact of their bullying or torment… Children don’t have foresight that most logical-thinking adults do… Shit, the gift of foresight is still something I’m grasping in my mid-twenties…

    I think in order to combat bullying, both parties (victims and vanquishers alike) need to be addressed, need to be heard, need to be educated and need to understand the full gravity of how their actions can ruin a person’s self-esteem, self-worth and ability to function properly in life.

    I feel very sad for Kate Harding’s experiences. Mine were similar, though more physical, but… honestly, that term “they were just kids” can actually sometimes be valid.

    Thanks for the post :)

  7. Tina

    “They are not adults and don’t (can’t) think and behave exactly like adults. But that doesn’t make them sociopathic.”

    Yes.

    As a teacher and a mother, I believe that children are still learning empathy and proper social behavior. There can be no tolerance for bullying. Full Stop. AND because children are still developing the proper tools for pro-social behavior, I believe that the responsibility to stop bullying rests squarely on the shoulders of adults. Calling children sociopathic, however casually, feels to me like blaming/shaming children for their natural state of moral development. Fail.

  8. silentbeep

    I really liked Kate’s post quite a bit, and I like your post too. I had a big problem with the “deification of children” comment but did not feel like getting into a flame war over at her place – people were making really strong statements and emotions were running too high (I remember what the old Shapely Prose comment section was like, and I don’t want to go there again).

    In the U.S. the rates of child abuse are appalling and the foster care system, and group home system is awful – there are plenty of examples of where children are treated like absolute crap and our society let’s it happen.

    This “deification of children” in reality, does not exist. If it did, we wouldn’t allow as many children to suffer in abusive homes, in poverty and in sub par schools, as much as we do, in the U.S. at least.

    • “In the U.S. the rates of child abuse are appalling and the foster care system, and group home system is awful – there are plenty of examples of where children are treated like absolute crap and our society let’s it happen.

      This “deification of children” in reality, does not exist. If it did, we wouldn’t allow as many children to suffer in abusive homes, in poverty and in sub par schools, as much as we do, in the U.S. at least.”

      YES. Thank you. That is exactly it: some children may be spoiled, some people may treat children as ‘special’ or whatever, but that does not in the slightest negate the fact that children are, as a group, practically voiceless. And they are vulnerable.

    • silentbeep

      I think I see sometimes a lot of pressure in the U.S. at least, for women to have children (especially within a marriage). But I don’t think that’s about the children, in and of themselves. In such cases, i think childbearing is used as a way to socially berate women into the “acceptable” way of being. The children themselves are like, used as a social pawn for making sure women are “normal”- which really sucks.

    • Again, YES!
      I can see how childless/childfree people might view PARENTS as privileged but that does not by extension mean that their children are deified. The every day reality of children says otherwise – I mean, for crying out loud, mothers aren’t even supported to stay at home from paid work for long enough to establish breastfeeding in many cases and in my mind that’s a really obvious example of how a culture might support the HAVING of children but only pay lipservice to the task of actually meeting the needs of those children in a sensitive way. (Which is not to say that children who are not breastfed or who have mothers who work outside of the home automatically don’t have their needs met, but that in a culture where what children actually want is centred, it wouldn’t happen that way as the norm.)

    • When I think about the deification of children I am thinking about a certain subset of parents who find it totally acceptable to wander around spaces that are not designed for families with a screaming child (like a $100 a plate restaurant). I’m talking about the people who, at even a cheaper, explicitly family restaurant allow their kids to WANDER OVER TO MY TABLE and interrupt my own dinner and then act like I should be ashamed of politely asking them if they can retrieve their kid.

      There are a shitton of issues where parents and kids get the short end of the stick – I totally acknowledge and support efforts to change that. But I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to deny that a small group – who is very vocal, alas – really does have the attitude that their children are to be more highly prioritized than anyone else in a public space. I’ve run into it too many times to believe it simply doesn’t exist.

      I’m not trying to start shit. I’m trying to explain where the idea of the deification of children is coming from – and it absolutely is coming from parents acting inappropriately but that doesn’t actually change that it exists.

    • silentbeep

      @The Rotund

      Yeah, I agree with you about the “deification” but ya know, that “entitlement attitude” is about the parents, not so much about the kids in and of themselves. I think what Ariane said here points to what you are talking about:

      “I think I can understand where the notion of ‘deification of children’ comes from, and I think it applies only to a subset, and I think when it happens, it disempowers and hurts kids even more. I think of it as a particular approach to parenting that is probably reported more often than it happens, and I think bringing it up in this context is misleading and irrelevant. It’s an interesting idea to me, but is, perhaps, another post. ”

      So this stuff right here ….”I’m talking about the people who, at even a cheaper, explicitly family restaurant allow their kids to WANDER OVER TO MY TABLE and interrupt my own dinner and then act like I should be ashamed of politely asking them if they can retrieve their kid.”…hurts kids too.

      No one is really helping that kid by allowing that kid to do that.

    • @silentbeep

      Which is why I said:

      “and it absolutely is coming from parents acting inappropriately but that doesn’t actually change that it exists.”

    • silentbeep

      @ The Rotund

      Yeah, I agree with Arianne below though, that I don’t see how this small subset of parenting, relates to the subject at hand (i.e. “socipathic children” and namely the Clementi case).

      When I said I don’t think the “deification of children” exists I still don’t think it does, not really , not in the true sense of actually valuing these as individuals with needs, that don’t necessarily translate into wants. I think it’s really about the gratification of certain adults’ egos or certain parents’ sense of entitlement to let their kids do stuff like run around in a restaurant. I still don’t think it’s about the kids per se.

    • The thing about the deification of children, is that it’s not about children’s rights at all. It’s about the parents of those kids’ rights. It’s about parents who think that the problem is always with other people and never with their child (and by extension, their parenting). It’s parents who always believe their child doesn’t have a problem with social interactions, it’s just that everybody else doesn’t understand them. It’s the parents who believe that it’s always the teacher’s fault that their child isn’t learning. It’s the parent that always looks to someone else to solve (or disappear) any problem that they find. They use the excuse that their child is so precious and so special that they need all this special consideration over and above everyone else, but what’s really happening is that the parents are dumping their own responsibilities onto others. The kids lose out completely.

      I would never decide that anyone was in that camp on the basis of a single interaction – maud knows that I do the exact wrong thing with my kids sometimes, and fail to parent as I should, and sometimes that’s in public. It doesn’t indicate my long term parenting. But it is something you can see in a pattern of behaviour, and it certainly does happen. It’s a form of marginalisation of children that manages to alienate other adults even further.

    • silentbeep

      ok i get what you are saying there.

  9. This is a fascinating post. I suspect Kate’s real intention was to point out that children are egocentric — which is, after all, a natural developmental phase — and that this can have certain behavioral results.

    The concept of children as actively marginalized is new and, frankly, astonishing to me. While I would concur that some children are marginalized — children of color, children who don’t follow gender norms, children who are disabled, etc — I’d have a hard time agreeing that all children are uniformly and unjustly marginalized as a group. Of the examples in the linked “adult privilege” list, my experience is that many DO apply to adults, and many DON’T apply to children, and others still DO apply to children but in appropriate and responsible ways.

    I’m wondering if maybe there is just a huge cultural difference in parenting and childhood ideologies between AUS, the UK, and the US, and that’s why this strikes me as so unfathomable.

    • Lesley, I have a lot of respect for your activism and I loved the piece you recently wrote on bullying (and commented therein and shared). I am confident that expanding any worldview to include an interest in the child class can only help other activist efforts and is indeed essential, much like I think you’d say intersectionality is essential for FA.

      “The concept of children as actively marginalized is new and, frankly, astonishing to me.”

      If the concept that children are oppressed is new to you why not, before weighing in, read from a few of us who write on the subject? We really do have a body of work.

      My problem with your (and others’) denunciation of the AP list is this = it denies the reality children are human beings. It may be confusing to think of how to do things a different way (your “appropriate” comment), but that does not deny children’s lived realities. Denying children’s lived realities (and not just the ones being beaten or starved) is step one into raising children better (and raising ourselves out of relying on their second-class status).

      Children do not turn into adults on a certain day by a magic fairy wand. I read somewhere that in the case of children it’s one of the rare instances where one is almost guaranteed to move from one oppressed class into one with privilege. I suspect this is why so few adults are vocally. Many adults enjoy the benefits of being adults and never look back.

      But in entirety it really does break my heart how few adults consider children’s experiences. I’ve been flamed, attacked, and called “crazy” for even LINKING to the AP list.

    • FTR, I wasn’t “denouncing” the list — I found a goodly portion of it to make perfect sense. I think my confusion came in on certain points, for example, the use of the word “marginalized”, with which I have very strong connotations. Or the list’s point about family finances. In many families, including kids in conversations about how funds are spent may be possible and useful, but in many families — namely poor ones — this may not be possible. More than anything, I guess my feeling is that the list could be improved with a greater emphasis on how intersectionality affects the status of children. The class and race privilege of, say, middle-class white children does not erase any marginalization based on age, but it does mean that marginalization operates on them differently than it does on children with other intersectional oppressions.

      And though I sincerely expect you didn’t mean it that way, the “magic wand” comment came across as a teensy bit condescending. I have a Master’s degree in developmental psych, so I can claim some minor familiarity with that process.

      Anyhoo, now that I am aware that this body of work exists, you can be sure I will be reading more about it!

    • I’m super-glad you’re going to look into it further. That is wonderful to hear.

      We’re a working class family (not a poor one I hasten to add) and absolutely include our kids in discussions about finances (which also includes the fact finances are finite or sometimes non-existant). Living consensually is not just a function of white/middle class/elite or whatever.

      Again, it is amazing how few people actually ask those of us who are doing it, how it works. They just tell me it won’t.

      Which is where my “magic wand” comment came from. It’s not directed at you, it’s bourne of many, many conversations on this subject and a lot of frustration with the rejection of the concepts the child class as anything other than, mostly, treated well in America.

    • geekanachronism

      For me it comes down to this – even if not every single act of misogyny is applied to every single woman, it still exists. Even if there are children who aren’t marginalized in a way you think is acceptably unjust, that marginalisation still exists.
      The actual events of that marginalisation that are similar between adult and children are often intersected in adults with homophobia, misogyny and racism. They are just applied to children regardless of those things.

    • Wow, wonderfully-put!

    • Exactly.
      I’ve been struggling with how best to reply to Lesley’s comment without writing a hugely long essay – I think this is basically what I wanted to say in a nutshell.

    • So the argument is basically like the argument that even though not every white person is racist, institutional racism still exists as a ubiquitous oppressive force against POC, with varying influence depending on individual circumstances. Interesting.

    • Yup.

      I’ve been thinking about this lately in relation to my own daughter. She recently had an experience where an adult was exerting unnecessary control over her (a carer was trying to teach her not to ‘need’ her teddy bear except for sleeping). That was, of course, a minor injustice compared with actual abuse but it was an example of how easy it is to exert adult privilege, and it was extremely distressing to her. Now, my daughter was
      - able to tell me what was happening
      and I am
      - English-speaking, white, literate, wealthy enough to be a paying customer and hence be able to take my business elsewhere.

      I chose to listen to my daughter and was able to write a letter to the child care centre and, basically, protect her. The situation was resolved in her favour.

      Obviously, had she not been able to tell me about it, or had I not been in the privileged position that I am, it would have been a different story.

      But, crucially: if I had not chosen to listen to her, to care about her feelings, and to act on that care? She still would have been powerless to stop what was happening, despite all the privilege that her parents have.

      Only because she is a child.

      Imagine if the carer was molesting her, rather than taking her teddy bear, and the weight of that complete powerlessness hits home, right?

      So I completely agree that intersectionality is key here and I am sympathetic to the view that some children are more in need of advocacy than others (and pretty white girls from affluent homes, like my kid, don’t fit into that category). But the bottom line is that acknowledging the ways in which children as a class of people (including those from privileged homes) are disempowered, vulnerable, marginalised, doesn’t make the world any less safe for the least privileged children.

    • geekanachronism

      Include the way that the disempowering marginalisation further contributes to perpetuating the stereotypes (i.e. children aren’t allowed to protect their own boundaries/state their needs so when those needs/boundaries become critical and result in meltdown it becomes further ‘proof’ that children are unable to enforce boundaries/state needs and therefore should not be allowed to) (add in the misogyny heaped upon parents who DO listen to a child’s needs and respect their boundaries and it’s a FUN place to be).

    • Lesley I am really glad you’ve had the time to read/comment here. As Kelly & Jasie have observed, the feeling that the fatosphere isn’t always child-friendly crops up from time to time – as it does with feminist blogs in general.

      My personal observation hasn’t been that there is much of a cultural gap in parenting between here in Aus & the US & UK, although there are some differences of course.

    • To be honest, I don’t read that many fatosphere blogs, nor feminist ones (it’s awful, I know, but I only have so many hours in the day!), so I will have to take your word on that, though it doesn’t surprise me terribly. I would hope that my blog, whatever category it fits, is useful and welcoming to people of all ages, which seems to be the case if the emails I get are any representation.

      Possibly what’s coloring my perception here is my own experience — as a kid, I was extremely self-reliant from an early age given my circumstances, and as an adult, my interactions with kids have primarily taken place as a teacher and as an academic, which mostly taught me that children are just as dramatically varied individually as… everyone else. Which should be obvious, but as I don’t really travel in circles with kids that often, I guess I’ve been able to ignore the conventional wisdom about kids and how they should be treated/raised/understood.

    • I didn’t so much mean child-friendly in terms of being accessible to children but rather free from child hate. And I want to clarify that I wasn’t talking about your blog, or @TheRotund’s when I mentioned times I’ve felt this has cropped up.

  10. Melissa

    Wonderful post. I agree with you that Harding’s post is spot-on except for that comment.

    All the excuses are bullshit. People (adults, children, the teenagers who assaulted Tyler Clementi…people) are either sociopaths or they should know better. Pick one or the other. We shouldn’t make excuses for why non-sociopathic people do really horrible things. There would be a lot fewer really horrible things being done in the world if our reaction to them was “That was a horrible thing to do, now say you’re sorry” instead of “but I know you’re a good person, so it’s all ok.”

    It’s not ok. While those kids can’t be held directly responsible for someone committing suicide (the only person who’s ever wholly responsible for suicide is the person who did it), they SURE CAN be held responsible for sexual assault and for bullying. Those WERE their doing and their fault.

    • I’m really uncomfortable with saying that people must be ‘sociopathic’ if they ‘don’t know better’. ‘Diagnosing’ or labelling people – not just children – with words applied to psychiatric conditions when their behaviour doesn’t suit our standards of ‘normal’ is seriously problematic. Having said that, I completely understand the need to make sure that people – especially legal adults, as the bullies in the Tyler Clementi case are – are held responsible for their actions.

    • Melissa

      I’m sorry, apparently I worded that really poorly. I didn’t mean that sociopaths “don’t know better”–I mean that by virtue of their diagnosis knowing or not knowing better would be irrelevant, so they’re not really included in the discussion. I worded it badly, but my intent was to exclude actually sociopaths from the comment I was making. What I meant to say is that those who are not actually psychopathic should know better, or, in the case of children, should be taught better. Instead we as a culture act as if there’s this gray area where a “good person” can do something bad and their “goodness” somehow mitigates the “badness” of their crime. That’s what bugs me.

    • Yep, ok, I get that.
      It’s a standard response in rape apologism too – ‘oh, but he’s such a nice guy’ – and it is really sickening!

  11. I don’t have kids – and I HAVE witnessed what I’d call the deification of children in some spheres though I don’t know what other people mean by that so much. But I have to object to the characterization of children as sociopaths for another reason than all of the excellent ones you have laid out here.

    Mental illness in children of anything other than the ADD/ADHD/autism spectrum is so rarely and poorly understood and addressed. Some children actually ARE sociopathic. Some children are bipolar. Some children are depressive. Some children are any number of other things. Issues of brain chemistry are not issues only faced by adults.

    Categorizing all children as mentally ill because one does not care for certain traits exhibited by children as a group contributes to the idea that any mental illness is just NORMAL for kids and perpetuates the way it gets ignored. It’s already complicated because kids are at different developmental and cognitive stages. But disappearing mental illness in kids doesn’t help any one.

    • Good points! And it underscores how children rely on us to help them manage their physical, mental and emotional needs. The repeated ignoring of children’s vulnerabilities (including mental health ones) and dependence on all adults (and the second-class citizen status many afford them) is exactly a huge factor in why bullying persists in the child class.

      And whatever “certain traits exhibited by children as a group” might be is a question on my lips. I have children and work with many children (and as I said above in my “venting” comment do not prescribe to by-rote authoritarian strictures which many grownups deem “appropriate” and don’t take one second further to examine). Children are not a monolith and do not behave the same nor develop according to required, rigorous, and prescriptive adult interference and adult decisions.

      Adults run children’s lives. The fact so many activists are so hands-off with how this is being done (except to denounce obvious abuse) is so disheartening. Like I said above, there really are better ways to raise children that do not include name-calling, condescension, authoritarianism, and fear-based strategies. I understand many adults don’t know HOW to do this, I really do (I was in that camp once myself). But it is fascinating how few so-called “progressive” activists seem to explore or ask those of us who are employing these strategies with incredible results – for our children and other children who are the future, even if currently it is we that hold the power.

    • Dammit, I replied to this, I did! Anyway, all I said in that comment is that by “traits exhibited by the group” I was referring to developmental stages. Kids a developing. It’s what they do. I think sometimes people don’t know how to handle that.

      (Will answer the rest later!)

    • Okie dokie, done with writers group. Whew. AND BUT SO.

      I think there are a lot of bloggers who do not have children. So, at most, we discuss how children in public spaces might impact us but I don’t KNOW so I don’t generally feel comfortable commenting on someone else’s parenting. Especially since I have, really, only seen a small snapshot. I don’t know what’s going on with that family. Or with, in many many many cases, families in general.

      And when those who don’t have children DO offer some sort of commentary, there is a lot of “you don’t have kids so shut up” from the parents I know.

      The one thing that I really miss about being a church-goer is that the attendees were age diverse. I got to hang out with kids and with the elderly and with all ages. I wish there were more spaces where kids and adults mingled without people thinking the non-childed adults were pedophiles/predators.

    • “I don’t generally feel comfortable commenting on someone else’s parenting. Especially since I have, really, only seen a small snapshot. I don’t know what’s going on with that family. Or with, in many many many cases, families in general.”

      So seconded. One of the most upsetting things I see on our far-too-frequent Disney trips is people loudly judging other folks’ parenting (or perceived lack thereof). Unless you are privy to the details, STFU.

    • “I think there are a lot of bloggers who do not have children. So, at most, we discuss how children in public spaces might impact us but I don’t KNOW so I don’t generally feel comfortable commenting on someone else’s parenting.”

      I would venture to say that this, as much as anything, is one of my great frustrations with the way blogging actually functions as a medium for communication – because you don’t tend to get seen unless you’re a member of a larger blogging community, I think bloggers tend to keep themselves in blogging categories – i.e. “parenting” blogs or “FA” or knitting blogs or or or.

      My (woefully quiet this autumn) blog is on the FA feed but I try to intentionally introduce a wide range of topics about my life, rather than JUST FA. Lots of bloggers have children – it’s just that, unless you’re reading parenting blogs, chances are you just aren’t seeing them. It’s also intimidating as hell to mention parenting approaches in a public forum, because chances are, you’ll get at least one person flaming you. As a parent, I walk the constant tightrope of NOT wanting to pull the “I’m a grownup, do as I say!” card but also trying to set respectful boundaries for my child and, no matter how hard I try to do what’s best for my family, someone will think it’s the wrong choice and feel free to tell me so. There’s a lot of bullying in parenting (sometimes from the parents who claim to be the most touchy-feely, a la Attachment Parenting advocates – and I do try to be fairly AP).

      I think that some of the defensiveness comes from that uncertainty and constant awareness that people are Ready To Criticize [tm]. In my experience, there are two groups of non-parents who comment on parenting – those who are respectful, and are genuinely curious and/or reasonably frustrated with an experience that they had with a child/children/parent, and The Childfree [tm] who are genuinely convinced that children should be seen and not heard, and that any parent whose child doesn’t magically fall in line at the snap of a finger are overly permissive moos/breeders who think their pwecious honeys are beyond reproach.

      Thankfully, most of my childfree friends are in the former category.

    • Heidi, I love what you’ve said here! Many blogs really are “single-issue” ones, or end up that way.

      And I write a couple multi-issue/intersectionist blogs and I swear my readership is kind of low… but my readership is awesome and faithful too and the discussions and emails etc. I get as a result are deeply satisfying.

      I just wrote a bit about parenting/bullying and some issues you’ve brought here (rather aptly) made me think you might want to read what I’ve said. It’s linky and long but… hopefully you will enjoy it!

    • Thank you so much for addressing the problem with co-opting words used to describe mental illness as generalized descriptors or insults – I didn’t quite get it into my post but I’m really glad it’s been raised in comments.

    • You covered some really excellent points.

  12. I think I can understand where the notion of “deification of children” comes from, and I think it applies only to a subset, and I think when it happens, it disempowers and hurts kids even more. I think of it as a particular approach to parenting that is probably reported more often than it happens, and I think bringing it up in this context is misleading and irrelevant. It’s an interesting idea to me, but is, perhaps, another post.

    I particularly agree with the importance of listening to kids. Both the victims and the bullies. Bullies need to be held accountable, but they also need to be heard. All the stats show that a huge proportion of bullies were bullied themselves. Listening to them, whilst not excusing them, might actually stop the behaviour before it reaches the kind of level that leaves them with lifelong guilt, or turns them into a genuine adult sociopath. The idea that a child bully is irredeemable can so easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • There are a lot of incredible comments in this post but this is my favorite! Thanks.

    • “…I think that when it happens it disempowers and hurts kids even more.”

      Absolutely! Thanks for making it clear that this isn’t a case of arguing for one extreme or the other – neither ignoring children or ‘deifying’ them is a helpful position. Treating them as people is a good start.

      And you are so right about listening to perpetrators – even those of us who were bullied were probably bystanders or even bullies at some point in our lives. I feel like the ‘you’re either a bully/asshole or you’re not’ isn’t a very helpful position to come from, although of course neither is ‘you’re a good kid so you can’t be a bully’.

  13. Regina T

    I hadn’t really thought about children being powerless before this post, and it really gives me pause. Even though I am 44 and have raised one daughter (25) and am still raising another (10), I have always felt that children had power. Rethinking that now, it’s more clear that they only have power when an adult GIVES it to them or allows them to have it.
    For me, the crux of this lies in one’s perspective. I got pregnant as a single woman at 19. When bio-dad didn’t want to be a dad, I had a choice to make. The choice to be a parent hinged on my factors, but ultimately, that choice changed me. I became less self-focused and more other-focused. I developed a desire to model positive behavior, despite the negative ones I received in childhood and beyond. My view of the world shifted because I wanted better for my child. It came naturally, yet I never perfected it, and in fact still make numerous mistakes today. But I keep pressing on because it feels right to want to shape a world in which my offspring can develop a healthy rapport with the world. This includes sacrificing my own needs and wants, but I do it willingly (most of the time) and without resentment. I don’t regret the choice I made at 19 to be a parent, but I do understand there is a fine line between wanting to help your child navigate the world in a healthy way and allowing your child to demand special treatment by others.
    I think that others view this “deification” of children as being the supposed overindulgence parents heap on their kids. People see parents paying big bucks for their child’s sports activities, toys, games, vacations, private educations, etc. as allowing the child excessive power. But what you pointed out-that children really DON’T have any true power-is really the truth. To call them sociopaths implies mental maturity, adult perceptions, and dismisses real mental health issues altogether. To imply that we, as parents who have kids who say or do socially unacceptable things, are deifying them completely misses the mark. We all make mistakes…and that is how we learn about life. Trial and error.
    In reality, children only have power when it comes to their adult caregivers. Kids who bully seem to have an acute awareness of power and get something out of it. But it’s an oversimplification if to call them sociopathic.

  14. I don’t know why I didn’t post this earlier, but Arwyn has a great piece re: how we treat children, whether they are an “oppressed class”, and the implications of how we treat kids today (and what that means for their future in anti-oppression work and bullying):

    “Dancing between the tables: on the personhood of children”

    Full of win!

  15. Pingback: Noble Savage » Blog Archive » Really Striking Stuff (RSS): A round-up

  16. @TheRotund and @Lesley

    I absolutely know where you are both coming from in not wanting to comment on others’ parenting, particularly as non-parents. That all makes total sense (likewise the point that bloggers without children – ie: many of the fatosphere bloggers – don’t focus on children for obvious and valid reasons).

    But I also just wanted to spell out a point here that (I hope) has been getting across: this is not a parents vs non-parents kind of conversation. There are plenty of parents who would find the notion of adult privilege not only confronting but actively counter to their views and their parenting style. I also don’t subscribe to the view that only parents, or people who wish to one day be parents, care about children or are allowed to have an opinion about how children in the community are raised. Hence I’m very interested in the input from non-parents in this thread :)

    • This is not a parents vs non-parents kind of conversation. There are plenty of parents who would find the notion of adult privilege not only confronting but actively counter to their views and their parenting style.

      Yes. This. Times one hundred. Many, many parents buy into AP 100% – hence my above “arm of the law” comment.

  17. This? Is awesome. I can’t even think of a comment to add, because you hit it all on the head.

  18. Pingback: Saying “ouch!” when you get stepped on; on bullying and silencing « Kataphatic

  19. Pingback: Hortus Deliciarum » Blog Archive » Parenting and other minefields…

  20. *Claps* This is so completely what I wanted to say, except eloquent and well-written!

  21. Pingback: Tweets that mention Bullies = bullies, children =/= sociopaths and other simple equations « Spilt Milk -- Topsy.com

  22. Everybody needs to read some Alice Miller, and then to remember that “Lord of the Flies” was FICTION, not a medical journal. Mean children are acting out what they experience at home. They enter the world hardwired for connection and love.

    Sister Wolf (mother of two)

    • ‘Lord of the Flies was FICTION’
      YES! There were so many people commenting on Harding’s thread mentioning Lord of the Flies. Makes me stabby. I happen to really like that book but don’t cite it as if it’s a sociological study.

  23. Pingback: links for thought (October 2010)

  24. Pingback: Owning it; opening up | Kelly Hogaboom

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