As I have written before, bullying cannot be considered a part of growing up because it is quite often the case the bullies themselves do not grow up.
One study found that as many as 60 percent of bullies had at least one criminal conviction by the time they were in their 20s and more than half of that number were repeat offenders. In addition, it is reported that criminals and abusers sometimes have records of behavior problems that go all the way back to their preschool years.
Despite this, little extensive research has been done on what happens when bullies grow older. With most of them, it is likely that when they have their first run- in with the law that will be enough to turn them around. Others may require two or three run-ins and many may simply shift gears and become the office bullies we hear so much about.
All things considered, one has to expect that some bullies will remain as they were as children throughout their entire lives. We should be concerned about this because levels of bullying, narcissism and sociopathy are high among millennials (I should know because I am a millennial). It is reasonable to believe that this young generation is poised to cough up a record number of violent thugs.
The question is how does one prevent a child from turning into a bully? To answer this question, one must know where bullying behavior comes from.
Preschoolers, like baby chimpanzees, often engage in a behavior known as exploratory aggression. Small children instinctively aggress against other children to test their own abilities and the strengths and weaknesses of others.
Within day care environments, it has been observed that physical aggression represents roughly one in four of the interactions among children. In a nutshell, the children are trying to assert themselves in a dominance hierarchy with other children.
The trouble with this behavior is that we cannot have a stable society full of dominance hierarchies based on physical prowess. Responsible adults don’t tolerate this behavior among children and, ideally, children learn from adults and other children how to control aggression.
The rush of pleasure that a preschooler might feel from hitting another child might be followed by the pain of getting hit back or being reprimanded by an adult. But one has to ask what happens with a really big kid.
A study conducted on hundreds of 3-year-old children from the island of Mauritius that involved follow-ups on them later in their young lives concluded that children with large body sizes at the age of 3 tended to be aggressive at 11 and those that hit growth spurts later on in life were less prone to aggression. This study is consistent with others done here in the West, indicating that cultural differences have no effect on this trend.
This makes sense not simply because larger children can be more effective bullies but also because at the age of 3 a child’s brain is not fully grown and is still quite malleable. If a large toddler learns that it is easy for him to knock over other toddlers and he is never reprimanded by an adult, then the behavior will end up being hardwired into his brain resulting in a habit that will be very difficult to break.
So this is probably the basic recipe for the creation of a bully though there are often other factors that can be involved as well. Bullies often report things such as poor parental supervision, intense family conflicts and sometimes abuse. In other instances the parents themselves are bullies and encourage the behavior.
If one wants to teach a child to control aggression, the time to do it is when they are toddlers and their brains are still growing. While there are certainly genetics that render some people more prone to anger and aggression than others, overall the control of aggression is a learned behavior. If you wait until the kid is 6 years old, it will likely be too late.
Contrary to popular belief, exposure to TV violence has nothing to do with the development of aggressive behavior. Toddlers can show signs of aggression before they get a chance to watch TV.
Ever seen a small child try to bite another child? They do not learn such behavior by watching TV or by imitating adults. It is a built-in biological impulse that society tends to restrain, provided that the society in question is healthy. TV violence can simply be thought of as the byproduct of an already violence-prone society trying to express itself.
One tends to think that physically aggressive adults will always do themselves in but I tend not to think like that. Highly aggressive thugs can be extremely useful cannon fodder for criminal gangs, terrorist organizations or politicians with malevolent intentions.
While working along the Mexican border, I stumbled upon the body of a Mexican man who had been executed by drug cartels. While extreme poverty no doubt herded many people into these cartels, I wondered how many of these guys were the school yard bullies that no one was ever able or willing to stand up to.
We could end up with some problems ourselves. Frank Meeink, author of “Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead,” has warned that the same people that he sees going to the Neo-Nazi/Ku Klux Klan rallies also show up at tea party gatherings. In short, he warns there is a violent movement within the tea party movement that could end up dominating it if conditions favor it.
While some tea partiers have tried very hard to purge these elements from their ranks, they seem to have failed. One could easily see dangerous elements of that movement at the (Cliven) Bundy standoff last spring. I hope it does not get worse.
Kevin Reichling is a biological science technician who performs invasive plant control. He lives in Boulder City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..