“It’s up to adults to set an example.”
– Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander (Cloud, 2010)

Most parents would never intentionally condone bullying nor encourage their child to engage in such behavior. Yet most parents do things that can indirectly encourage bullying or send the message that this type of hostility is ok, some much more so than others. Even the most sensitive parents may routinely act in ways that encourages marginalization of the “others” in our society. This section will explore the different ways parents can critique their own behaviors, because even those readers who are wonderful parents in every other regard will inadvertently model attitudes that condone a bully mentality, probably in ways you’ve never thought about.

How good parents might promote bullying

To understand how everyday parents can inadvertently encourage bullying, we must first break down the elements of what bullying is. Bullying at its fundamental level involves several components: A) Coming up with reasons to judge someone or label someone as different, evil, or a pariah on society, B) Using this reasoning as justification for hostile acts to be done against them, C) Finding a hint of personal satisfaction or solace in their suffering. Whenever you exhibit behavior that supports any one of these components, you’re modeling aspects of the bully mentality in front of your child.

Next, you need to understand a couple of key things about how what you model carries over to your child’s behavior: A) Children will not make a distinction between your reasons for why someone deserves punishment or persecution and the reasons they create on their own. Their own justifications for cruelty will seem just as real and dignified as those they see throughout society. B) Every little bit you feed these components makes the propensity to bully all that much more likely. With this in mind, let’s examine how parents and family play a role in bullying behavior.

“Kids are very vulnerable to what adults say. Adult modeling
is a very powerful force in shaping youth behavior.”
– Stan Davis, school guidance counselor and bullying prevention expert (Matheny, 2010)

How parents set an example by judging others

When you model hatred of other people or make judgments against them, whether it be pedophiles or homosexuals or illegal immigrants or high profile crime suspects such as Casey Anthony, you send the message to your kids that it’s acceptable – even justified or good – to ridicule others based on what you suspect about them. You indicate that it’s noble and good to attack others based upon their problems or deficiencies, and that punishing others or finding satisfaction in their suffering is perfectly fine, so long as their perceived shortcomings are deemed “strange” or “weird” or “evil” by the group. So is it any surprise that kids re-enact this same script when it comes to bullying – persecuting others according to their shortcomings or mannerisms or identities that are considered “strange” by the group? After all, they’ve had a lifetime of examples promoting and encouraging such behavior.

Those parents who exhibit more judgmental attitudes in the home are more like to have kids who are bullies, since their children adopt this same judgmental attitude towards the world at large. So parents need to teach children that it’s not their place to judge others, (even when we think they did something that was wrong), and the best way to do this is by MODELING IT YOURSELF. We can have strong suspicions that Casey Anthony murdered her child, but at the end of the day, none of us could ever know for certain. In other cases we may indeed know for certain that someone committed a hurtful or destructive act. But we could never know what hidden forces in their life drove them towards that action. Which is why the best psychologists and philosophers (and also Jesus, for our Christian readers) have long known that EVERY JUDGMENT we make against others is wrong, because it’s always based upon incomplete facts, a partial (and often incorrect) understanding of their situation and motives, and is filtered according to our own belief system and prejudices, which do not amount to universal truths for everyone. Therefore no matter how just our opinions may seem to us, they could never be accurate or true. This is why we all need to work to refrain from judging others.

  • Teach children to despise hurtful actions, but to have compassion for the imperfect people who commit them.
  • Psychiatrist Dr. James Hollis advises parents to ask themselves: “How many gay jokes, or racist slurs, or ethic generalizations have you or I perpetuated recently, or failed to challenge?” (Hollis, 2007, p. 117) Teaching kids to reject prejudice involves speaking up about it when you encounter it as well as not doing it yourself.
  • When you see judgment or hate speech on TV, especially when it comes to individuals society has deemed as deserving of it, make a habit of pointing out that when people do have problems or shortcomings, the heroic thing is to offer encouragement, guidance and support to help them. It’s not a heroic act to attack others based on their personal failures. Attacking someone’s failures or imperfections is so brainless and easy any 4-year-old child can do it, and it doesn’t help us solve problems.

How parents set an example through patterns of family interaction

“How family members relate to one another can impact children. Children who observe parents and siblings exhibiting bullying behavior, or who are themselves victims  at home, are likely to develop bullying behaviors.”
– Alison Seale (2004, p. 9)

As a kindergarten teacher in New York City says, “the mean girls are often from mean moms.” (Week, 2010) The way in which children learn to treat others is largely based on the behavior they have modeled for them in the home. If a child grows up in a household where people put each other down, attempt to get their way through aggression or force, or otherwise show a dearth of love or an absence of empathy, children grow up thinking this is the way people interact with one another. This in turn leads to bullying behaviors among peers. (Cohn & Canter, 2003)

Verbally abusive households in particular are especially common in our society, and can be a significant contributor to bullying. These kids learn that when you’re upset with someone, you call them names or put them down . . . just like their parents do to them (or each other). Domestic violence is another common contributor to bullying. Kids in these households learn that using your power in abusive ways is something people do. It’s their model of how relationships work. The extent to which they mimic this abusive pattern in their own peer interactions in a large part depends on how well they identify with the abusive parent. Little boys who idolize their father in other ways are particularly prone to falling into this trap.

“Every day we are being emulated by children who believe that domination and subservience are acceptable and that it is ‘normal’ to hurt and be hurt in the name of love. It’s all some of them have ever experienced.”
– Albert Ellis & M. G. Powers (2000, p. 210)

Children are also closely observing patterns in your romantic relationship(s). They’re learning about things such as power dynamics, how to treat the opposite sex, how one navigates conflict, how one deals with issues such as jealousy and trust, as well as numerous other nuances in the way you treat your partner, and vice versa. This can either increase or decrease the likelihood of relational bullying that comes later, either between romantic rivals or ex-boyfriends and girlfriends.