Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

By John Vander Brink

A fifth grader playfully terrorizes a smaller boy on the playground by chasing him and growling like a bear. A physically mature middle school girl notices her classmates roll their eyes secretly when she goes to the board to answer a question. A sixth grade girl is left standing by her locker while all the others hurry off to lunch. Two boys from a class do not get invited to a birthday party because they live too far away. A group of teenagers avoids social interaction with a boy who doesn’t "act" normal. A boy is not invited to play basketball because his team always loses.

Studies done in recent years of the taunts and torments of growing up have produced some strikingly significant conclusions for parents and educators. The first major finding is that we underestimate the amount of bullying or teasing that goes on under our very noses. It happens on playgrounds, in hallways, at the lockers, when the back is turned, on buses, and sometimes even under the guise of a seemingly innocent or kind behavior.

The second finding in these studies is that there are 10- 12 percent of school age children who suffer from isolation, taunts, or teasing in one form or another, That is a significant number of children who grow up in an environment in which they do not feel welcome, acceptable, and comfortable. Those children could be your children or my children, and then it would be meaningful. But certainly they are our children, and it ought to matter to each of us.

The third finding is that many adults do not take this issue seriously. Some adults dismiss the issue with "kids will be kids" responses. Kids say that adults sometimes tell them to work out their own problems, not to tattle, or just not bother with what they consider a petty issue.

A fourth finding is that there is a great difference between the amount of unkind behavior experienced and the amount that is seen. Even where adults care, and do show an interest and concern, they are not aware of the extent or how often this behavior is felt.

A fifth finding is that most teasing or bullying starts in elementary school, peaks in junior high, and declines in high school. Young children are not often aware, and not made aware, of how these actions are felt by others around them.

A sixth finding is that often those who taunt and tease are unstable and insecure themselves. Many times there is a history of emotional abuse and inconsistent discipline in their own lives. A feeling of superiority is sought by putting down others.

Another finding is that peer abuse is often learned from the actions, or inaction, of adults in that young person’s life. They see others practice exclusive behavior so they think it is okay for them too. Also, when adults do not intervene when their children exclude others, they think this behavior is normal and acceptable.

An eighth finding is that inappropriate intervention may in fact reinforce negative behavior. If girls are playing with a jump rope for example and boys decide it would be fun to tease them while doing so, an adult may inappropriately intervene by thinking the jump rope caused a problem. Taking the jump rope away does not solve a problem, in fact it probably reinforces negative behavior because the boys see the girls upset.

Finally, both teasers and onlookers tend to blame the victims when their behavior is confronted. While it is true that there may be contributing factors from more than one source, each person is accountable for his own actions.

Am I my brother’s keeper? Do I care about the feelings of others? What am I teaching my children in the home and in the classroom? Do I set a good example for them’? Do I tolerate inappropriate behavior? How can I help the teased, and the teaser? What is the root of all this problem?

Must we not all confess that we have a Cain-like heart, and that our children are copies of who we are, by heart and by example? The root of this problem is selfishness, self- centeredness, not really caring about others. Because we have a Cain-like heart, we do not always act like we are our brother’s keeper. Being our brother’s keeper involves caring for others rather than being careless about others.

But how? What specifically should we as parents and educators do to be caring about others, and to train our children to be caring about others. Here are some issues to consider.

1. Be aware of the subtility by which cruel teasing can take place. Listen to who is speaking, who is silent, what is said, how it is said. You will soon hear that not all that sounds innocent, is innocent.

2. Be concerned, but do not overreact. That is, do not dismiss or ignore the issue. It is true that "kids will be kids," but that means kids are sometimes thoughtless or mean, and need to be corrected. However, an overly zealous adult interference can actually heighten the problem, because the victim then tends to interpret all behavior as having malice intended.

3. Be intensely concerned about checking early signs of teasing, even what may seem like good-natured teasing. There may be a place for childhood joking with one another, but this should never, never be at the expense of someone else’s feelings. Even though the mocked one is not present is no excuse for the teasing. If children develop an early habit of teasing, it will only grow - both in cruelty and subtility.

4. Search for the reason of the taunting and teasing. Often it is really an attempt to cover an insecurity in themselves. Children that feel good about themselves and are emotionally well-adjusted do not need to tease others to "feel on top" or "have fun." Their enjoyment is much deeper and more meaningful than the fake pleasure of seeing others suffer.

5. Set a good example. Be tender-hearted and thoughtful yourself. If children see their parents tease, quarrel, or mock others, it is only natural for them to do the same. This is especially important because often as adults we do not realize the impact of our actions either. Are we thoughtful enough to seek out the quiet or withdrawn parent or adult, for example, at a school program? If not, we are probably teaching something negative to our children.

6. Be helpful to the needy. Sometimes teased children do have idiosyncrasies, but that is no reason for cruelty. Rather than allowing your children to speak negatively about others, point out their good qualities. Suggest that they show a real concern about the victim by talking to them about the "barrier" (perhaps bad breath, bad odor, etc.) rather than teasing. But this can only be done by a caring person.

7. Point out good qualities in others. Even those who do not have idiosyncrasies also have much perhaps to be admired. It may not be possible to require a close friendship with everyone, but we can require our children to show respect to everyone.

Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes, we surely are. This must be evident in our daily actions with one another. And that stems from the condition of our heart. A heart of love to God and His commandments is a heart that is inclined also to love our neighbor. By nature we have a Cain-like heart.

Oh, what need we have to pray, "Lord, renew my heart. Make me to love Thee above all - and my neighbor as myself." No man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth it and cherisheth it. May that love towards others be seen in all of us: adults, teacher, parents, and students alike.