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  • What is happening to our conscience? Why are our children becoming bigger, meaner bullies? ~ Kelly Mason

    There's a theory going around about the growing prevalence of bullying. I'm not convinced that there's a lot more of it in our schools and streets than there used to be, but concerns are very widespread and providing anti-bullying advice is clearly a growth industry. But before I say any more about what I think is going on, let me tell you a story.

    A neighborhood kid my age named Mark preyed on me when I was a wimpy tween. He was a sneering, a wiry boy who liked to hurl insults and shove me down. Like me, he was an only child. I complained to my folks. My dad told me to stand my ground but avoid mixing it up.

    It kept happening. My folks talked to Mark's parents, who were really nice people. They hatched a plan. One Saturday the two families piled into a car and drove up to Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony play. We picnicked on the lawn and Mark and I explored the sprawling estate but failed to bond as hoped. Mark remained pretty sullen. I didn't feel much like talking myself.

    The play therapy didn't help. Mark still shoved me around as I cruised the neighborhood. (I delivered newspapers, so it was easy for him to find me.) So, our folks powwowed again and arranged a boxing match between Mark and me with gloves and a staked-out ring on our lawn, and the parents and my grandparents looking on. Mark struck out with a fury and landed four or five punches for every one I did. I started to cry, not so much from getting hit as from the humiliation. They called off the match after two rounds. It was clear who had won.

    Funny thing, I wasn't so afraid of encountering Mark after that, even though I knew he could beat the crap out of me if he really wanted to. And I didn't see him much after that. He seemed to lose interest in harassing me, and in the fall his parents sent him to a prep school in a distant town. Maybe Mitt Romney went there too. I wonder what the rest of Mark's life has been like.

    The theory going around is that bullies are a species of narcissist, and that their numbers are multiplying due to email, social media and mobile devices. In retrospect, I did not see Mark as much of a narcissist. To me, he was a loner, and outsider, simply an angry kid who acted out.

    The theory may have merit, as fixation with telecommunications can stymie development of social skills important for face-to-face interactions. It's easy to imagine oneself at the center of one's social networks, and to burnish one's image to ones peers. The more people behave that way, the easier it is to ignore others, put them down, or need their attention to boost one's ego.

    I think narcissism results from the whittling away of face-to-face interactions within families and neighborhoods, which reliance on gadgets has encouraged, but so has the rest of our culture. Adoration and emulation of narcissistic celebrities, marketing campaigns that play on our insecurities, an economic system that forces us to sink or swim on as individuals, and diets and drugs that mess up our metabolism all contribute to not being able to get along with one another and give us a sense that we're more important – and vulnerable – than we really are.

    So, we should not be surprised if our kids grow up to be good consumers, desirous of accumulating friends but not pals, credentials without merit, and ego without superego. And some become bullies when their fantasies don't seem to be coming true. Time for more adult supervision, I think.

    @image: from Parents Advocacy Network (also found elsewhere)
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