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The Bully Inside of You

Written by Kathy Watson

Do you make fun of others? Your kids may be watching.gossip and bullying

You get on the bus for the morning commute. A homeless person, smelling the worse for having slept on the streets, is sitting next to the only open seat. You don't make eye contact. You'd rather stand. Most of us would.

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When children are faced with schoolmates who seem different or odd, they will likely shun them, too. But children haven't learned to be tactful. They may subject the different kids to name calling, or ostracize them on the playground or during class.

Dr. Robert L. Myers, clinical professor of psychology at Widener University in Chester, Pa., explains, "If a child is somewhat different, it creates anxiety in other children, and they may exile that child. They think, 'Could I become like that?'"

Children seem to have a sixth sense that tells them when a schoolmate is different, especially if that difference makes him vulnerable. Kids with glasses, a stutter or a limp, kids who are shy or wear shabby clothes, kids who are too smart or too slow; all are ripe subjects for taunts or torment.

Children who bully face a powerful confluence of feelings. They are frightened that they themselves might become stigmatized by being friends with any kid who stands out in a negative way. They may be facing painful situations at home; they may be bullied by older siblings or feel inadequate in some other way. Like every kid under the sun, they want to feel like part of the "in" crowd.

"Human beings need to feel attached to someone or somebody, and that's what starts the development of cliques or sets," says Myers. Around age six, he explains, children begin to look beyond home for a sense of belonging. "That's why you see children going to great lengths to involve themselves in a group."

As adults, we may still fear slipping down the socioeconomic ladder or worry whether we're making the right friends. We practice more subtle, socially acceptable ways of avoiding those people we consider to be undesirable.

Who among us hasn't been guilty at one time or another of giving short shrift to an unattractive or unsuccessful acquaintance at a party? We choose where we live, where we shop and where we socialize, with an unspoken agenda of avoiding people who make us feel uncomfortable with their poverty, misery or outlandish behavior.

But our kids are watching. Showing compassion and acceptance of others is an important way to prevent your children from becoming bullies.

"If we do not teach tolerance we are teaching intolerance," says Dr. James Longo, professor of education at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. "We need to teach our children that being different is okay."

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