02/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Change and the Dream: Teaching Our Children About Non-Violent Living

This week we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his commitment to non-violent social change and the peaceful transition of power that focuses on a man who, in many ways, embodies Dr. King's vision. Wouldn't it be remarkable if we carried those principles to the deepest layers of our community at work, at home, in the schoolyard?

Let's talk about bullying. One could say that the scourge of segregation was a national policy of bullying; the institutionalized grandiosity of one group asserting dominance over another simply because it could. Certainly because of the heroic work of Dr. King and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, millions of everyday citizens made the decision to stand up against the Jim Crow bully, and in the span of one generation, while there are many more miles to go, we are witnessing a much more healthy relationship between the races.

In my practice as a marriage and family therapist, we talk about "Relational Living" which is defined as living in full respect for your self by maintaining healthy self-esteem and boundaries and in healthy relationship to and with others. It's about never dropping below the lines of respect in word or deed. At its core, relational living is non-violent living. That means that you make a commitment to not be disrespectful to any other human being and not to be on the receiving end of disrespectful behavior.

Much has been made about achieving full respect in a marriage, and we coach corporations about how to create full-respect workplaces, but it is just as critical to pass this principle on to our children.

"Give them something great to imitate."

Children learn what they live. They are much more impacted by seeing what we do than by what we say, so the best way to pass on this concept of non-violent full-respect living is to live it in our families. We demonstrate this importance by standing up to mistreating, grandiose behavior whenever we see it. Grandiosity is a favor to no one, least of all to the bully.

If as a nation we are truly dedicated to Dr. King's Dream, then we are interested in arming all of our kids against the urge to be retaliatory or bullying to others and also to stand up to bullying behavior when they are on the receiving end of it or witnessing it. Certainly any discussion of raising healthy relational kids is a loaded topic, so let's start with getting up to zero, what doctors call "first do no harm." Simply stated, we must commit to have little to no tolerance for kids mistreating other kids.

Too many of the stories that men told me for the book I Don't Want to Talk About It exposed how the secret code of masculinity has been enforced on men through peers and by peers as a mechanism of torture. Looking back, we now recognize as child abuse that which we used to call "good old fashioned discipline." Wouldn't it be nice if fifty years from now we view the stuff called "boys being boys" as intolerable bullying behavior?

Critics may consider this mollycoddling, but the ramifications of bullying are no trifle. The long-term, deep negative effects of appeased bullying are too obvious: Columbine, teen suicide, self-mutilation, addiction, and eventually spousal abuse or generally corrupt behavior. There can be no free pass to the bully. That said, the idea that it's good for kids to stand up to bullies has to be intelligently moderated. Of course it is good to teach our kids to stand up to bullies, if they are ones you can successfully stand up to. But, if the bully is three years older or three times bigger, or if it's a mean girl with an organized clique, to tell a child to pull himself or herself up by the bootstraps can be cruel. It's a set up for failure.

Think about it, nine out of ten bullies harass kids in situations in which they are pretty safe from any real threat of retaliation because essentially, bullies are cowards. It is incumbent upon parents, teachers and other adults to be aware of the condition and notice when bullied kids are in over their heads. The idea that any kid is supposed to stand up to kids older, bigger, stronger or to one who has the alliance of a group or gang is like saying if you get raped you shouldn't have been wearing that short skirt.

Too often we blame the victim and protect the perpetrator. We have set up a culture where weakness is punished and not protected. When we set up a condition where it is not permitted to be vulnerable, we set up consequences not only for the victim but for the bystanders as well. Just as Dr. King inspired a cultural shift to stand against segregation and prejudice, we need to shift the cultural thinking where bystanders are empowered to put their foot down and say bullying is not tolerated.

In full-respect living, there is no excuse for abuse. In contrast, our ancient patriarchal system has a fair amount of institutionalized cruelty. It's a Wild West show. It's the law of the jungle. Let them duke it out. Let kids torture each other, and let the best man (or meanest girl) win.

The bottom line is that bullying is violent -- even the kind where a kid is systematically ostracized is a form of psychological violence. There is no socially redeeming value in asking the weak to stand up to the strong without backup. There is no socially redeeming value in refusing to help or to turn a blind eye when help is needed.

It is in everyone's interest -- the victim, the bully and the bystander -- to create a safe environment in which respect for one another is not just a voluntary matter but a baseline norm that we insist upon.

Parents can click here for tips on"Taming the Bullying Monster," a practical guide published by the New York-based charity Partnership with Children.

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