'Why are the meanest kids the most popular?'

paigectOctober 8, 2007

This is the question my 12 y.o. DS asked me the other day. He figures if he is nice to people, they should be nice to him, and he can't figure out why some kids think it is so funny when others are mean, even kids who are supposed to be friends of the victim. He's not just talking about himself, but other kids he sees getting picked on regularly who have never done anything to anyone. I told him I thought that things hadn't changed a whole lot since I was in middle school, and that the "mean" kids tend to peak in middle/high school and that their bullying skills are not generally appreciated or rewarded in the real, working world (with some notable exceptions). But I was unable to come up with any great advice for how to deal with this, other than to make sure he sticks up for his friends or anyone who is being treated unfairly.

Any concrete advice for kids this age? It would be much appreciated!

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I don't think they are the most popular, but they are the most talked about because the other kids can't believe some of the things they do. It doesn't necessarily mean they agree with what they did or said.

The friends that giggle when this happens are unsure of what to say and laugh because of the feelings they have. Mainly embarrassment.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 9:08AM
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I think most of the 'bystanders' are secretly afraid that it could be them on the receiving end, and that keeps them silent. And of course, the bullies have their own problems that cause them to behave that way.

There's some good research out there on bullying - Carol Gray in particular has done some good research and has some good suggestions for kids with special needs and their schools. Many of strategies I've seen work on changing the passivity of the bystanders, and on helping the victims learn strategies that will avoid making them vulnerable -- things like walking with a friend.

It's ugly though, and one of my biggest fears as my own younger son nears middle school next year...

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 9:43AM
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I remember not only bystanders, but other kids that got picked on, doing the picking, trying to climb up the social ladder. I read this yesterday, and tried to think of a way to say what I have to say with out involving religion, but I can't. Maybe someone of another religion can, also add their own positive, constructive comments on this.

I would tell my child that it doesn't matter if the bullies popular or not. Life is a test. Your life on earth is as long as a blink of an eye, in comparison to eternity. Those kids are failing the test. Hopefully, they have a lot of time to study.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 10:38AM
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I think sweeby has a great answer. Most who support, giggle, or even tolerate a bully are mainly glad that it's not them. No one wants that kind of terrorization to turn on them and it becomes a kind of defensive measure. There can also be the aspect of feeling better about yourself by seeing someone worse off than you.

My girls are very into Harry Potter right now. They like it when the admirable characters take on the bullies. One of the nice things about HP is that his friends are often considered outcasts by others and popularity/power alone does not impress him. I may use this when the time comes, but we've not yet reached the bully awareness phase.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 3:58PM
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Thanks for the responses.

Allison, I agree about the embarrassment. I guess I'm wondering how to get it to stop. DS goes to a small (50 kids) private school for kids with LDs. I was told they do not accept kids with behavior problems, but it seems a culture of deviance is developing among the middle school boys. It is "cool" to get written up and you are a "nerd" if you never get in trouble, all that kind of stuff. I told DS that Bill Gates was a nerd, and look at him now! He found that funny, but I don't think it helps him day to day.

Sweeby, yes, it is a legitimate fear for parents of LD kids. I really thought that being at an LD school would help take care of it. I wouldn't say that DS is the only targe - - it seems to be spread around pretty generously. But he's not good at turning things into a joke or playing them off casually. He more tries to avoid the kids who cause trouble. But that leaves him one friend to hang out with regularly. Thanks for the reference - - I will look her up.

Bob, yes, there is a bit of that social-climbing-by-bullying going on. Your response did not offend me, and I'm not religious. I think the point we would agree on is that we should all do right regardless of the immediate consequences for us, which is what I'm trying to pass on to DS. It's tough, though, because at 12 one year seems an eternity!

Seeking, I know that DS really appreciated that aspect of the HP books as well. I hope he learned something from it.

I think I will call the school and at least alert them that this is going on (most of the behavior happens while no one is looking, of course). DS doesn't want me to, but I'll ask them to keep it confidential.

    Bookmark   October 10, 2007 at 7:14AM
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At a small private school for kids with LDs?
YOU BET the school wants and needs to know about it!
And the emerging "culture of deviance" is another problem.
They need to nip that one in the bud.

Is there an active parents' group at the school? Frankly, I bet every single parent at that school has the same fear of their child being bullied -- so I'm thinking that any sort of school-wide and/or parent/school programs would have a pretty high chance of success.

I'm looking forward to hearing what you find --

    Bookmark   October 10, 2007 at 9:27AM
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I agree with Sweetby; it's a shame that the school doesn't realize what's going on as I think that maintaining a non-threatening environment is one of the most important aspects of any middle school. Some kids get such a mean streak at that age that it does need to be caught and dealt with early. Many administrators prefer to close their eyes because it's such a pain to deal with and I hope this isn't the case at your son's school.

    Bookmark   October 10, 2007 at 11:50AM
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being "cool" is being powerful.

Appearing not to care about whether you get in trouble is appearing to be powerful.

Making other people feel bad is a form of exercising power. And of getting attention.

I have never bought into the idea that the picked-on kids *CAN* do anything to make themselves less likely to be a target.

Ialso resent like $*@$ the message that somehow it is the pick-ee's FAULT.

Mainly bcs I believe (as a picked-on jr high student) that the kids who are mean are NOT motivated by anything weird about the pick-ee. They are motivated by a desire to feel powerful. They are motivated by the awe the inspire in their audience, and by the feeling of power they get when they say something mean and the other kid doesn't do anything about it. (even ignoring them doesn't necessarily work to shut them off--they still get the attention of their audience, and the snickers, and their victim still didn't do anything to make them STOP, even if they didn't appear to be wounded)

I will say this to your 12-y-o. It's what I discovered at age 12.

If you are the target, act like you don't care. Eventually, it will become true, you WON'T care. It'll take a little while--and you may never ever make them stop. But it will stop bothering you.

And, there is tremendous value in some good old-fashioned contempt. Not hatred, not vindictiveness, not nastiness in return, not enmity. Just contempt. Disdain.

Kids who are mean deserve your contempt. And being able to feel contempt for them is a powerful tool to protect you. And it is an appropriate thing to learn how to do.

The dictionary gives one definition of "contempt" as "lack of respect." How *can* he respect kids who are mean, or who think it's cool not to care about school?

And it is absolutely appropriate to let that disdain show, to everyone, including the object of your contempt.

And I will say to you, talk to the school.

I went to a small ordinary high school in small-town Iowa. When I was there, I felt there was a major "culture of deviance" or of apathy. It was not cool to be excited about school. Or to get good grades, or to answer the teacher's questions. It wasn't even cool to be excited about extra-curricular activities unless you were REALLY good--an OK soprano was looked down on if she loved choir--only the 3 kids w/ phenomenal voices were supposed to care.

It was excruciating. Do what you can to nip it in the bud in the entire school. Bcs it will affect your child.

    Bookmark   October 12, 2007 at 6:40PM
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I also remember being bullied in middle school. No fun.

I think Tally Sue is right, kids bully to make themselves look and feel powerful. And, it sounds as though in your son's school of 50 kids, a few of those kids have way too much power over the others.

I think you should talk to the administration. If you know other parents who have similar concerns about this group of kids, try going together. It will help the adminstration realize that it is not just you and your son who have issues with these kids.

Getting your son involved in *non* school related activities and having a set of friends outside of school can also be a big help. Good luck!

    Bookmark   October 16, 2007 at 9:33AM
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Getting your son involved in *non* school related activities and having a set of friends outside of school can also be a big help.

I totally agree with this. Kids who are picked on in school need "safe havens" where the relationships w/ other kids are unaffected by the trouble in school.

In school, I was weird. In the youth activities in my church, I was a popular bigshot. I was the same goofy "make a joke if you can, make a fool of yourself if you want" person, the same "raise my hand, volunteer the answer, follow the rules" goodie-two-shoes. But in my youth group, all those things were fine.

In fact, I was liked BECAUSE of them.

That helped me to see that all I had to do was wait it out--pretty soon, I'd go away to college, and I'd never see those kids again.

In fact, it helped me to know that I *had* to go to a college far away from the one that most kids from my school went to. And it worked--again.

It's important that kids have a way to know that school isn't the only thing, that things won't always be that way.

    Bookmark   October 16, 2007 at 6:03PM
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I truly appreciate all of the responses. I was also sometimes bullied as a kid. In our school, the football players ruled the roost and were allowed to get away with truly outrageous behavior, for which the school would now certainly be sued. Things have sure changed since the 80's, haven't they?

Sweeby, the parent group is really small and some of the parents involved are the ones I would want to avoid in this situation. Hopefully I can deal with it at the administration level.

I spoke with DS's advisor. We just met this year, and I think maybe she thought I was being one of those "hovering moms" when I brought it up, since she had not noticed anything. Coincidentally, the day after our conversation they had a little behavioral "blow up" of sorts - - not a bullying incident, just repeated bad behavior by a small group of boys. Supervision has been increased and penalties dealt out for the offenders. They seem to be on top of it, we'll see.

After further discussion with DS, it appears that there were only a couple of incidents that might qualify as bullying, and they seem to have stopped. The thing that he finds more disturbing is that a certain group of kids seems to think it is cool to mess around and get in trouble. They brag when they get written up and they will do things publicly. They play lots of "practical jokes" on each other, like putting food on each others' seats, etc. They seem to keep it within their own group, but I wouldn't doubt that there is a kid or two in that group who isn't really enjoying it. My DS wisely avoids them, but it should be stopped.

Talley Sue, I'm sorry for what you went through. Thanks for the concrete advise. I think DS does exactly what you said - - acts like he doesn't care or doesn't notice. He's not quick enough on his toes to come up with a joke.

Busymom, I agree wholeheartedly that it is important for kids to have a network outside of school. We are very, very lucky to live in an extremely close-knit neighborhood with many kids of all ages, all of whom are close (sometimes in a love-hate way, but close nonetheless!). It's like having 20 cousins within a couple of blocks and it gives him tons of security he wouldn't otherwise have. So he definitely isn't losing sleep over this school situation, particularly since his school takes kids from all over the state and no kids from the neighborhood go there.

    Bookmark   October 16, 2007 at 7:42PM
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You might also compliment him on his good sense in avoiding kids whose values he doesn't share.

And point out how much calmer his life is because of his values. (those kids probably have more conflict at home, and they have to work harder to get the grades they get, bcs their mind is so distracted w/ the misbehaving "hobby" they have developed)., Your DS has a great asset there.

Point out perhaps that he has the trust of his teachers, bcs he's a "good kid." And that if he needed help, or forgot his homework, or something, they'd be more likely to respond to him or to believe him, than they would for these other kids.

Even if he's not actually being attacked, he's seeing other people demonstrate other values (happens to use grownups when we live in a community w/ people of a different faith, etc.). That may make him feel that his own values are questionable. A normal reaction on his part, too.

Just quietly reinforce his standards, and your admiration of his adherence to those standards.

and if it's only that one group is less serious about school, I'm not so sure that it needs to be *stopped* the way bullying needs to be stopped.

I would want my child to see some difference in the end result of his behavior vs. there. So I'd point out the benefits he's reaping, to be sure he sees them.

    Bookmark   October 17, 2007 at 10:05AM
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If there is a bullying problem, the school absolutely has a role to play, and a responsibility to stand up and take action. I am the board president of independent school my children attend, and several years ago one of our upper grades was decimated by this problem (literally --parents pulling their kids out of the school). We did not get our arms around the problem fast enough, buried our heads in the sand assuming that "it couldn't happen here". Well, it did, and when we finally did wake up we brought in a consultant to work with our teachers, and kids and parents, to literally change the culture of the school. This guy works with schools in a three-year long process, and it has really made a big difference. We now have a "social inclusion" system, that has gone a long way toward raising everyone's awareness, brings the bullies and the bullied together (does not demonize the bullies, either, as these are children that need our support too, so that they can learn a better way of interacting). The consultant's name is Kim John Payne -- website is http://www.thechildtoday.com/ - I encourage anyone interested in this subject to check him out.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2007 at 4:35AM
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My DD's school has great policies on bullying, and they jump ALL OVER it... and in ways that protect the kids (so kids are more likely to report it).

HOWEVER... I am noticing in my DD's 4th grade class that a lot of the problems are more subtle than that, yet it still causes the same heartache - more "emotional" manipulation which is just this side of emotional bullying. We've had to work sooo hard to get her through a situation with her alleged "best friend" who just started making her life miserable (the other kid clearly has some serious issues - not for me to discuss them on a public forum, but when we conferenced with DD's teachers so that they knew what was going on, without breaching any confidentialities they made it clear they had been noticing some weirdness too and were concerned).

In any case, we have spent the last 6 months or so trying to help her retain her OWN self esteem in the light of another child - who she had previously trusted - doing everything she could to break it down. Bless her, she has finally processed the idea that "I mustn't allow others to make ME feel bad about myself for no reason other than their own problems" and is regaining her own equilibrium. I was also SO proud of her when she said to me recently "Mom, [X] isn't really my friend any more and I don't want to invite her to play or anything, but I think I should call and wish her a happy birthday anyway - it's just a nice thing to do". We've stressed a lot during all of this that she didn't need to "retaliate" by adopting and modeling some of the cruel behaviours she'd been seeing, and I was thrilled to see this clear demonstration that she has understood that.

Mainly, I'm just relieved that we seem to be coming through this emotionally intact; we had some reeeaalllly bumpy times in the summer as this was all coming to a head!

Interestingly (ramble ramble ramble), the remodeling has actually been a big part of helping her through this socially difficult period: before - in her tiny room with nowhere the kids could just hang out and play without interfering with everybody else's activities - it was tough to have folks round without a lot of planning. Now, with her big room, with a kitchen which is OUT of hte way, with flow through the house functionally designed, I can just say, "Sure - why don't you call somebody and see if they want to play?". It has made a HUGE difference.

    Bookmark   January 6, 2008 at 12:29PM
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paigect, you've probably long since moved past these issues with your son, but just in case it's still a problem, I wanted to make a suggestion. I have found the series of videos and materials by Rick Lavoie to be invaluable in addressing social issues with kids with learning disabilities. The one called "Last One Picked--First One Picked On" would be particularly appropriate. These videos are a bit dated, but the content is excellent and the suggestions are easy for both parents and educators to follow. They are put out by PBS, so even though some of them are pretty old, the quality is high.

The boys in your son's school probably won't respond to the same intervention in the same way as kids without LDs would. Dealing with them using methods designed to get through to kids with learning disabilities is important. You can Google Rick Lavoie and find sources for them. I found a couple of the videos in VHS format available very inexpensively on eBay.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2008 at 12:09AM
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