Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Friends & Enemies

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a story in the Health section about the role enemies play in a child's social and emotional development. Honestly, putting aside extreme cases of bullying, the story's punch line should come as no surprise. We learn all about life in our relationships and working out what it means not to get along with someone is just as important as working out what it means to be friends. After all, not everybody can be friends and the story says it's just fine to be mean to the one who was mean to you.

And yet, the story bugged me. I read reactions to it on Slate's XX Blog and Jezebel, and it still bugged me. The thing is, these stories, they're all one sided. The good side. It's the "good" kid, the one who was heartbroken or the one who had meanness foisted on her who knows the person who knows the person writing the story or who writes about it herself. The kid (Who am I kidding? We're probably talking about girls here) who was mean, her side is not typically explored. For example, the Times story had this about a middle school encounter:

Ms. Shapiro’s fight with her former friend was partly for show. The stronger girl pretended to hit her — and told her to run away holding her face, for the benefit of the other tough kids watching. It was terrifying nonetheless. “I ran all the way home,” she said. “All through high school I was scared of her, and we didn’t talk. I just avoided her.”

That sounds like a pretty complicated moment for the mean girl. Of course it was scary for Ms. Shapiro, but did she really have to avoid her all through high school after that? Was there no opportunity for them to talk -- or for Ms. Shapiro to ask about what happened and, dare I say this, how she might have contributed to or changed the situation?

Sure there are times when people turn on you, and that's awful. But for the most part the stories we tell of these experiences are black and white. There's no room for any texture, any nuance, any dynamic other than telling a third party, "And then she did THIS!"

I'm not saying kids should be taught to take the blame when someone does something mean. I'm not saying a little agreeing to disagree isn't what's called for in a lot of life. One of the healthiest relationships I've ever had was with a roommate with whom I just didn't get along. She didn't like me, I didn't like her, we never pretended otherwise, and we just weren't nasty about it. I am suggesting that social situations don't erupt in isolation and sometimes, after the heat of the moment has cooled, it might be useful (or interesting) to look at all sides, even your very own.


marjorie said...

really good post. the story bugged me too. i agree that simple "we agree not to like each other" relationships can be uncomplicated and healthy. and i've been doing a lot of bullying research lately, and one thing that piece didn't address was that the dynamics of bullying are SO ever-shifting. the same kid can be bullier or bullied on any given day, and i wonder how much people's self-perceptions affect after-the-fact bullying research. people may THINK of themselves as victim or victimizer when they were both. finally, i went to a bullying workshop at our school and for kids who are FREQUENTLY targets, there are ways to help address the behavior that incites bullying, in a way that doesn't blame the victim, but that looks holistically at the phenomenon and tries to help the bullied by working on his behavior. not that ALL victims are targeted for a reason, but it's worth looking at. i just think, as you said, bullying is really complicated. i want to do a post on good children's books about the subject. there are some really bad ones out there.

Robin Aronson said...

i'm really looking forward to that post. it's all so complicated. SO complicated. it's great that your school had a workshop on that subject...and your point about the after the fact bullying self perception is spot on -- because if you (one) can't see how there might have been a dynamic going on, then all you've got is indignant harumphing and no real understanding or movement on either end.