human development


I’m still investigating bullying and interventions for bullied kids. Most of what I’ve come across is about how to support kids in not fighting back and telling an adult if they are getting bullied. Another take is learning the language of violence to become less of a target. Here are two videos about that.

The first video is a very short one (just watch the first 10 seconds), of a kid getting beaten up in a locker room. The second is a documentary of that same kid getting trained at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy. It’s a commercial for the Gracies, but I found it moving to watch them work with this kid, give him some traction in this situation. They show him self defense stuff and, building on that confidence, how to hold himself socially so that he’ll be less likely to need to fight. That’s what I’m most interested in, the reduction in violence.

 

Some folks think that learning to fight is a bad way to reduce violence, and as far as I know it’s still an empirical question, if knowing martial arts reduces the amount of school fighting you will become involved in. What protects them from the instrument fallacy, for example? If your hammer is Jiu-Jitsu, won’t more confrontations look like inevitable fights?

My guess, though, is that it does reduce violence, at least outside of formal sparring. There’s a potential leveling up, developmentally, in learning a martial art. At a certain age, establishing a dominance hierarchy makes developmental sense. Knowing how to handle oneself in violent situations, feeling less helpless and scared, could decrease the chances of a traumatic event slowing your progress out of that dominance-hierarchy stage. At the same time, martial arts usually come along with an ethical code, to use your skills only to defend yourself or someone else, for example. Any sufficiently sophisticated ethical code which is internalized will also help a kid progress out of might-makes-right. It will also likely help other kids around them do the same, just by seeing higher level ethics in action.

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I’ve been thinking about bullying a lot lately. My younger clients are often getting bullied at school, so I started looking for videos about how to handle bullying. That genre, it turns out, is both boring and useless. On the way, though, I fell down the strange and compelling rabbit hole of bully-fail videos. Someone is getting picked on, has enough of it, and fights back effectively. The bully thinks they are picking on someone weak, but they turn out to be tough. They make me squirm, just watching people treat each other so badly, but there’s something gripping about them, too.

Here’s an example:

This  next one is a compilation mostly of the same type, but the section that got to me runs from 7:07 to 9:28, and is part of a less common but more moving version: Someone is getting bullied and someone else steps in to protect them.

I’ve watched the section from 7:07 to 9:28 many times now, and my reaction changed over time. The first time I was just really uncomfortable, waiting for Will to protect himself and then oh, so relieved when someone stepped up. After the first time, the painful part is how long it takes for anyone to stick up for him. I suppose they are giving him a chance to fight back, but it’s a really long chance. The other kids want to see a fight. After getting to that point, I started noticing how all these bully-fail videos are really bystander-fail videos. How is it OK, or even funny, that this particular bullying is going on? Where are all the tough but nice kids stepping in to stop bullies? There are no principles at play here except dominance, until someone steps up. And when someone does, it’s a major leveling up for the hero, from might-makes-right to some sense of principled right and wrong. From the standpoint of physical dominance hierarchies, protecting a weak person is taking on a liability to do the right thing. That weak person will be grateful, and might help you finish your math homework, but they will almost never help you out in a fight. And let’s face it – you probably don’t care much about your math homework.

I know those moments are a big deal because it happened to me. In 6th grade there was a kid who’d failed a couple times, much bigger than any of the other kids, who started pushing me around one day on the basketball court. I was small and sensitive and felt completely helpless. Suddenly, another kid knocked the first kid down, probably hit him a few times, and said something like, “If you touch my friend again, I’ll  kick your ass again.” I still feel choked up, thinking about it, more than 30 years later. That’s how it should go.

[I look for this hero every year or so on the internet and he’s never turned up. Terry Quakendal. I’d like to thank him, as an adult, for what he did.]

This last one is not a bully fail video, but quite interesting. An adult calls his childhood bully to talk about what happened:

Not Back to School Camp comes right before my birthday, so I often use our closing intention circles to make public goals for my personal new year. In 2010, I announced that I would sit and meditate for 30 minutes each day, every day, all year. I chose this goal for two reasons, one completely practical, and one speculative.

The practical reason was diligent self-care during my last year of grad school. I knew I would be working long hours, and wanted to remain as clear-headed and stress-free as possible, so that I could learn, write, and support my clients at the best of my ability. There is a sizable body of evidence that a regular mindfulness meditation practice could help. I also imagined that succeeding at this goal would help make this kind of self-care a permanent part of my lifestyle.

The more speculative reason came from reading meditation advocates like Ken Wilber, who claim that a mindfulness practice can be an engine of personal development. They conceptualize growing up as a process of continually refining one’s sense of self, becoming less egocentric and more compassionate. While practicing a mindfulness meditation you are learning to make objects of observation out of the contents of your consciousness that you normally inhabit with your identity. The sensations, emotions, and thoughts that you are become objects that you notice, distinct from your self. You can move, for example, from being anger about a certain injustice to having and observing that anger. This increase in perspective should be extremely helpful for family therapists like me–we need to be able to see all sides of the story: How does each person’s perspective on this problem make sense?

The only way I can present the results of my year-long experience in a clear-cut fashion is by the numbers, and in that way I failed in my goal. I meditated 30 minutes on 254 out of 365 days in that year. That’s 111 days of not meditating. Most of those days were during the summer that Reanna moved in with me. I found it hard to prioritize alone-time after two years of a long distance relationship.

The other way I failed by the numbers was that I did not sit for 125 of those 254 days. When I said I would sit and meditate every day, I meant it. Pretty soon, though, I had a day when I was so tired that I really, really did not want to sit up. I decided that on the rare days like these, I would lay down and do a relaxation-meditation called yoga nidra that my friend Guyatri Janine had recorded. It turned out that days like that were not rare at all. (When I did sit, by the way,  I sat Vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka from my birthday in September to the new year (42 days), and then zazen (79 days) as taught by my friend Debra Seido).

The third failure is that I have not continued meditating after my year was over–less than 30 times in the last four months. It’s easy to imagine this says something about the results I experienced from meditating. I apparently did not value what I got from meditating enough to continue prioritizing it when I had my fiance’s attention available, starting last summer, and even less after my official commitment to meditating was up in September.

But what I got from my meditation practice is by far the most difficult thing to be clear about. I can say that without exception I felt better afterwards than I did before I sat down to meditate. Sometimes it also seemed like I was “getting better” at meditating, that I was indeed training my mind at this very difficult task. I can’t say, though, how much it lowered my stress or changed my ego-centrism or compassion levels. I have no control group to compare myself to. I can say that I was fairly stressed out in grad school and that I did a good job with it–the writing, the learning, and serving my clients. I think I can also say that I am more compassionate than I was before that year, but more I’m inclined to credit the connections I made with my clients than my meditation practice.

The problem with evaluating this kind of program is more than just not having a personal control group. It’s also that the program advocated by Wilber and meditation teachers is very long term. “Don’t just sit a year and expect to know what’s going on,” I imagine them saying. “Try 20 years. That’s more like it.”

The skeptic in me replies, “That’s a very convenient way to make testing all this out extremely expensive.” The researcher in me says, “Well, let’s get to it! This could be important. Who’s going to design a huge longitudinal experiment, fund it, and run it? You can still get it done before I die!” The idealist in me says, “20 years, huh? I am strongly considering it.”