Daniela Owen, Ph.D.
Partner, San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy
In an age of parents sticking up for their children regardless of how wrong their children’s behavior is, Leslie Blanchard’s post “4th grader comes home with disturbing news – then mom realizes her ‘worst nightmare’ is coming true” is refreshingly honest. Rather than candy-coating the situation of her daughter leaving a well-meaning peer out “just because,” this mother of 5 called her daughter out for bullying (and then publically admitted to it on social media). While she recognized her daughter and other classmates’ actions were not overtly cruel, she understood that avoiding a peer who was attempting to become a friend is a more covert form of bullying. This mother’s ability to empathize with another child rather than protect her own “at all costs” proved to be quite valuable. Instead of sympathizing with ”how annoying” her daughter’s classmate probably was, she gave her daughter a task to get to know the other girl. It was not a suggestion, not a choice, but a requirement to come home the next day and “report 3 cool things she found out” about the other child.
Blanchard seems to understand parenting and human relations on a deeper level than most, but what she might not have known was that she was following a strategy that has been shown in the psychological literature to break down “in group/out group” mentality. Gordon Allport’s seminal work on prejudice first written up in his 1950s book “The Nature of Prejudice” explains that to reduce prejudice biases, humans have to work collaboratively towards a common goal. Getting to know a person not in your group who you view as an “outsider” frequently reduces the sense of difference between the outsider and the group. Oftentimes, individuals realize that the characteristics that they based their rejection on are unfounded stereotypes. Since Allport’s important research came out, the “contact hypothesis” (having more contact with people from a different group – race, gender, sexual orientation, religion – decreases prejudice) has been used to help increase empathy, reduce prejudice, and even reduce stress responses during mixed race interactions according to researchers Mendoza-Denton and Page-Gould.
Blanchard’s resolve to cut her daughter’s exclusion of a peer off at the pass was a brave and brilliant act of parenting. She taught her daughter and the other girl a very important lesson. She also warded off the chance of her daughter’s actions escalating over the years into more overt bullying by accepting, quietly consenting, or worse encouraging her actions. In addition to making a plan with her daughter to get to know the other child and checking in about how it went, this conscientious mother went a step further and risked her own precious pride to check in with the other girl’s mother. To admit that her daughter was not “perfect” (thereby she was not a “perfect” parent because her daughter had been leaving this other child out) was brave. Blanchard rightly points out that other parents’ attempts to stay out of their children’s peer interactions and let them handle it on their own is wrong. Fourth graders do not have the life experience or the brain development to just “know” how to handle such complicated social interactions. They need guidance. They need support. They need parents to follow-up with them and with each other. They need to understand how values of inclusion and non-prejudice play into their lives with clear, concrete examples from their own lives.
It is important for parents to see the forest for the trees. In this age of “helicopter parents” who hover, fixating on the details of their children’s lives, there can be many missed opportunities to teach children how to become good adults. Speaking frankly and collaboratively with children about how to solve problems and modeling examples of challenges that parents have to overcome themselves (without sharing too many details) can help children start to think independently about how to solve problems. Children who are popular and well-liked, as Blanchard’s daughter is, have the somewhat unique opportunity to serve as an example of inclusion and open-mindedness. These children’s peers look up to them. They can model behavior that helps everyone act more kindly and inclusively and breaks down prejudice in young friend groups. Or they can lead the bully charge. Who do you want your child to become?