Concerned about the level of adult bullying in kids’ hockey, the Canadian Hockey Association created a now-famous series of public service announcements called “Relax, It’s Just a Game.” Beneath the humor of parent-child role reversals, parents discover how humiliating it is to be pressured and shamed to perform. If you’re a parent who’s ever spoken this way to your child (and we pretty much all have at some point), this video will make you uncomfortable. The take away message: when kids bully other kids, they have learned this behavior from the adults in their lives.
How would you feel being “instructed” that way, especially in front of your peers?? How do you think your kid might feel in that situation?
Here’s the irony. We’re actually trying to teach our kids something good – maybe even great. Persistence, better skills, tenacity, strength, focus, sticking with goals – these are all wonderful life skills for kids, in and out of sports, but the package these lessons come wrapped in is just as important as the lessons themselves. At the very least, adults diminish the efficacy of the lesson by pressuring and embarrassing kids. Over time, when kids know that this is the humiliating format in which these lessons are taught, they shut down, further weakening our connection and our influence – especially during the teen years, when they need our guidance the most.
There are several ways that adults show up as bullies or as the teachers of bullying in kids’ lives. Sometimes we bully kids directly, as in the “Golf” video, while trying to teach them some important life lesson or skill. More often, though, we just set bad examples for our kids. Adults tolerate bullying far too often and for far too long, in our workplaces and from our leaders. When we play the roles of [unwilling but accepting] targets or bystanders in our own adult lives, we silently teach kids the lesson that they can expect to be bullied at the hands of others when they grow up, and that they are expected to watch silently while others are bullied right in front of them.
Sometimes, adults bully other adults in front of kids – road rage, parents or ex-spouses fighting unfairly with each other, parents bullying teachers at school, and teachers and principals yelling at each other [yes, schools have typical workplace drama too]. This real life theater has our kids in the front row seats, learning lessons we don’t realize we’re teaching. Kids observe and think: “Hmm, this is what it’s like to be an adult. When I get bigger, I can rage at anyone. I can do that. I’ll start practicing now, so I look adult and mature” [said in teen or child internal language, of course].
Taking a clear look at and becoming aware of our inadvertent roles as “professors of bullying” goes a long way towards identifying the problem. The next steps are committing to change, keeping our ears tuned for mistakes, and being willing to apologize and try again, with our mistakes guiding our growth.