So how do we begin, now that we're willing to look at the difficult issues? I think there are two first steps. Number one, we have to be open to the pain that kids feel. This may sound obvious, but it isn't. All of us went to school. Every adult has been in a school. And most adults can remember bullying, harassment, and emotional violence.
But too many of us want to put that behind us, to minimize it. We want to say things to kids like, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you. We say that-- I said it as a kid. But I don't think anybody really believes it, because we know that words do hurt. In fact, words can hurt forever. They get inside, and they wear at a kid's psyche, at his sense of well-being and sense of self, his self confidence.
So the first thing is to be willing to open ourselves to this pain. Don't dismiss it. Don't minimize it. Don't deny the hurt that kids are feeling about being bullied, about being harassed, and about emotional violence in general. A stiff upper lip is not enough.
And once we're willing to say yes, kids shouldn't have to suffer through school, there ought to be a better way, then we can move on to the more intellectual issues, the more cognitive issues, the more academic issues, in understanding this. And there, the step that we have to take is to adopt what we call an ecological perspective on human development.
Now, this term is thrown around by a lot of people in a lot of different ways. But here at Cornell, particularly, when we use the phrase "an ecological perspective," we're referring to the fact that if you look at research on almost any aspect of human development, you almost have to come to the conclusion that rarely if ever is there a simple cause-effect relationship between two matters, between two variables. Almost never is it simply, does x cause y? In fact, if you really ask, does x costs y, the best answer is almost always-- it depends. It depends because the context in which x and y are operating makes a tremendous difference.
What do I mean by that? Well, for example, let me start with a sort of cute example. A study done about 30 years ago asked a sort of provocative little question-- does the amount of babbling that an infant does predict how smart that infant will become as a child? Does the amount of babbling at infancy and the first year of life predict IQ at age 5? The answer-- it depends. It's almost a trick question. That's always the answer-- it depends.
It turned out in that study that for girls-- for girl babies, the more they babbled, the smarter they became. Whereas for boy babies, it didn't matter at all. Babble a lot, babble a little-- it didn't predict how smart they became. So apparently for girls, verbal behavior was the pathway through which they developed intellectual competence. For boys, the pathway went somewhere else.
Now, it's almost too intriguing to think that other research shows that even in the womb, the jawbone of the girl fetus begins to develop and move before the jaw bone of the male fetus. So verbal behavior, right from the start, is somehow built in to be more central for girls than for boys. Now, that's on average, of course. Some boys are very verbal. Some girls are sort of silent.
Other examples-- a study done in Sweden asked the question-- if kids are born who have at least one biological parent in prison, are they more likely to develop a criminal record? Well, the answer, of course, was-- it depends. It turned out if those children with at least one biological parent in prison were adopted into well-functioning, high-resource families, 12% of them ended up with a criminal record. But if those same babies were adopted into low-resource, high-risk families, the figure was 40%. So almost by a factor of four, the same child would take a very different pathway, depending on the family they were in.
It also involves the society you're in. Now, most everybody remembers the terrible events that happened at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in April of 1999, when two boys, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, attacked their school with bombs and guns, and killed 13 people before killing themselves. Now, if you ask, what caused that? I think you have to see that it depends. Would it have happened if something had been changed?
For example-- and this is a case I know something about first hand-- I don't think it would have happened if they had gone to a different high school, a high school that didn't have as much bullying, didn't have as much homophobia as they experienced. I don't think it would have happened if they'd grown up in a different country. If they'd grown up in Canada, for example, the context would have been very different.
One way in which it would have been different was, they wouldn't have had the same access to guns. When I was lecturing to an FBI group, shortly after Columbine, one of the agents said, can you tell us something we could do to make our schools safer? And I sort of jokingly said, well, yes. You jack them up, put them on wheels, and drive them to Canada, because the minute the school would cross the border into Canada, it would be in a different social context.
And the likelihood that a troubled, angry boy would end up as a murderer declines dramatically. The youth homicide rate in Canada is much lower than it is in the United States. The likelihood that a troubled boy will end up a killer is much reduced. It has a lot to do with access to weapons. It probably has some other things to do with the culture as a whole.
We always have to be willing to take this ecological perspective. Now, you have a chart in your materials that tries to sketch this out. It looks like sort of an octopus, or the blob, or something. But what you see is you have the organism, the individual child, the biological, living, breathing child or teenager, set in the midst of this context.
The child is part of a series of what are called microsystems. These are the actual situations in which the child grows and develops and acts and learns, and is a child. The home, the church, the school, the peer group are some very common ones. So we have the child being part of these settings. They actually go there. They're part of it.
Now, these settings are themselves connected systematically. And these are called mesosystems. It means the systematic connection between settings. So for example, there may be a connection between home and school-- the fact the child goes to both, the fact that the parents may visit the school, the fact that what happens at school affects what happens at home, and vice versa.
I mean, every teacher knows that kids who come to school from families where the parents value education and teach them to respect teachers, they get a kind of mesosystem support. There's a mutually-supportive system there. By the same token, there can be a church-home mesosystem, that the child gets similar messages in both places, that the authority of the parents is backed up by the people at church. The people at church are backed up by the parents. These systematic connections are there.
Now, for some kids, there's a school-church mesosystem, because they go to a religious school which supports and is consistent with and is tied into their religious instruction. So all of these possible connections are there between microsystems. And we call that the mesosystem.
Then there are the exosystems, the systems the child does not directly participate in, but which have an impact on the child's life. For example, the child may never go to the parent's place of employment, never go to their workplace. Yet what happens there has a big impact on the child's life. Obviously, if the parent loses a job, then the child is affected. If the parent has a bad day at work, it may spill over to home. And vice versa-- that if the parent is worried about their child at home, when they go to work they may not perform as well.
The zoning board, the school board, where decisions are made affecting the life of the child although the child never goes there-- these are the exosystems. Political parties, the government agencies where decisions are made that affect kids, these are all part of the exosystem. And surrounding all of that is the macrosystem-- the culture, the structure of the society, the economic system, capitalism communism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, all of these big systems that lie out there. Some societies are more cooperative. Some are more competitive. Some are more individualistic. Some are more collective in their orientation.
Once you have this whole outline of the map of the child's world, the ecology of the child, then we're ready to start digging in, particularly to dig in to look at the accumulation of risk factors, and then at a later time, the accumulation of positive assets in the child's life.
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While there are fewer than 100 child fatalities each year at school, literally millions of kids suffer from physical and emotional violence in the form of bullying, harassment, stalking, intimidation, humiliation, and fear. Beyond the rare events of gun shots at school are the common events of psychological stabbings- the millions of kids who suffer emotional daggers to their hearts at school. Sticks and stones and bullets may break their bones, and words can break their hearts.
This presentation offers a guide for parents, professionals, and other concerned adults seeking to help their adolescents, their schools, and their communities overcome this problem. The presentation focuses on how the social system of the school plays a decisive role in the process of bullying, sexual harassment, and emotional violence in the lives of teenagers. It is based upon James Garbarino and Ellen deLara's
And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence (NY: The Free Press, 2002).
This video is part 3 of 7 in the Protecting adolescents from bullying, sexual harassment, and emotional violence series.