THE BLOG

Breaking the Bullying Cycle From Birth

01/20/2012 03:37 pm ET | Updated Mar 21, 2012

Part of a child's birthright in the best of all worlds that we can help create, is that of ownership of an authentic experience of existence, of expression, and of feeling. Combinations of security, empowerment, confidence -- really amounting to reasons for hope -- develop when there is real mutuality and real listening to those early needs that go on to become early feelings and then real thoughts.

Even if we are lucky enough to have all the physical needs met for mothers and children, few mothers in the more so called developed nations of our globe feel the freedom to build the sanctity of an authentic relationship with their baby. That relationship would need to include a respect for the imperfections, personality, temperament of both mother and baby, since no relationship exists without a context.

The truth is that many mothers feel bullied from the start. They feel bullied by fierce traditional expectations and just as commonly, by expectations of the most current guru. Then there is the enormity of peer pressure that all too often supplies not tenderness but humiliation towards the fledgling mother who doesn't meet the standards of today -- standards that may well be gone at sundown.

I don't see how we can minimize bullying in the world of children, let alone the adult world, if we don't from the beginning provide parents the space and the supports to see our children for whom they are. And for that there needs to be a freedom from criticism that can feel brutal to even a seasoned mother as she negotiates the unwritten rules of politically correct parenting.

For one, there is the very word "development", something studied from psychological and multicultural perspectives since the 50s. A respect for development includes a respect for diversity and implies a faith in what we don't get to see as immediate results. It means we find out more about timing, and we get less fanatical about the early productivity of children pressured from the get go to compete for nursery school and for Harvard by the age of three. And it means that we take from stories and examples from cultures older and considered less "developed" according to our limited Westernized judgments.

Tenderness has lost clout for many who push their child as they have been pushed, to be independent, to show others how the "baby" can function without supports. Real security, however comes not from being forced but through internalizing of that same security, by giving help to those struggling to get their bearings.

Empathy gives birth to empathy, humiliation to humiliation. Humiliating the bullies in our world only increases the hate, while real empathy gets under the cycles of bullying. Motherhood itself is replete with pressures -- at times with pain and worry and at times with real bliss. As mothers enter the world of parenting, the best antidote to unbearable pressure that cancels out authenticity in mothers from the beginning, is an empathy filled with both respect and caring for what a mother needs.

We have been cajoled to function or make believe we are functioning through advice that seems simple in an office, but in the inside of an apartment or the outside of a campground the same advice can be reduced to useless psychobabble that evokes only a sense of failure. We have given out lots of advice making parenting seem simple while at the same time implying that if it can't be done that simply there must be some flaw in the mother.

At a time of too much pessimism about the economic future of our children and theirs, we will need a great deal of real dedication and caring to give our efforts towards reversing the negative predictions. And while there are economic factors at work, there is also the issues involved with the psychological preparedness necessary for harnessing our efforts in the direction of making our children's world better. And we won't begin to have the love and devotion and empathy for our children unless we start attending to that level of grownup development and needs for support, unless we start attending to the world of the caretakers, of the parents, of the mothers.

And that part is hard because we are caught up in values of showing our strength versus admitting our frailties. Few people have seen the beauty of the complicated truth that real courage and strength come from having our vulnerabilities respected. If they aren't respected, we simply hide them and find fault with our neighbors for their vulnerabilities that remind us of our own.

Perhaps a focus on all aspects of mothering and baby-ing can bring us past the political fray in which there are few shades of gray. Perhaps we can get underneath the different ideologies and false certainties so as to recognize we all have something to give and something to receive. Perhaps we can begin to sense that our stories are as important as obeying rules of behavior that may have nothing to do with us.

The goal in raising ourselves and our children is not complete independence, but rather interdependence. This doesn't happen in isolation, but rather in a context. The context, for a start, can begin with caring about what is really needed and felt. We can in addition, begin to break the cycle of bullying by claiming the importance of the true to life experiences of our mothers and our babies. This is not the portrait of what we are supposed to be doing but the stories that ring true to the real lives involved.

Carol Smaldino, CSW, psychotherapist and author of In the Midst of Parenting: A Look at the Real Dramas and Dilemmas (Brooklyn Girl Books, 2000)