Author Archives: pprothe

Do bullies lack empathy? Or is it something else?

Last weekend my daughter had 8 girls over for a slumber party to celebrate her 9th birthday. Slumber is certainly relative as there was little of that. More like an over-amped herd of elephants running through the house.

By keeping the list at just 8, she had to be selective on who she invited. During the deliberations, she talked about how she wanted the friends she could just be herself around. The ones who didn’t create the drama – the mean “popular” girls. Except for one. Her mother (who we really like) mentioned she was including “G” on her birthday invite and said how “Sally” really thought G was always kind and a good friend. Yet beginning in first grade treated her extremely poorly – and became one of the mean girls after being a good friend in kindergarten.

It was tough to watch the bullying start in first grade – we didn’t recall the level of meanness when we were there. Are kids meaner today because of the immersion in technology and media? Because life happens faster and more complex? Or are we just selective in our memories?

First grade was brutal with G coming home nearly every day from school in tears. In second grade, we requested that she not be placed with a couple of the girls – including Sally – who caused the most grief. She wasn’t and had a great year.

This year it seemed Sally was nicer. So G invited her to her party. But then she ignored G. Only talked about where she was going next. It was very me focused (not that kids aren’t often me-focused) And told another girl that she could no longer play their game because she’d left the room. We intervened, not tolerating disrespect of any kind. One on one, Sally is kind to G. In a group, not so much.

So why do the “mean” girls – like Sally – have so much pull? Is it the allure of being in the ‘it’ club? Wanting something that doesn’t come easily? I wonder if that’s the pull bullies have over the kids they bully. When they’re sometimes nice, they’re given the benefit of the possibility that maybe they’ll be a friend. Maybe. It keeps kids like G off guard – wondering where they stand, trying hard to make sense of it all.

Bullying can be subtle. As a parent, you might not always recognize it. Observing the dynamics of just one girl out of the eight creating drama introduced a level of tension that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I think G regretted then inviting Sally.

And what causes a child to become a bully? You can’t make a generalization that it’s just their upbringing. Sally has two delightful parents. Parents that expect her to respect other adults – which she does more than some of the others. We’ve often talked about why Sally bullies. Where does she get it? Her mom once told us that she doesn’t have empathy – can be really mean to her dad at times.

And there’s another bully who has a good home – her mom did admit that she spoiled her too much – but where does she get it? She often treats her mom just as bad as other adults and kids. But her mom always invites G to her daughter’s events. But G didn’t want to invite Elena. Said she’d just cause problems. Again, why? Is it a lack of empathy? Always getting what she wants? We can only speculate.

As a dad with a daughter, I can only speak to bullying among girls. I don’t exactly know what the experience is for the boys. Other than those my daughter says are mean. But they seem to be more overt – more physically mean than mental. Bullying among young girls is incredibly mental – games that rip and shred others’ emotions like bungee cord.

All I can surmise is that you can’t generalize. Bullies come from good homes and bad. And span all socio-economic classes. In order to help our kids as parents we need to look at each situation individually. See it through both our kids’ eyes as well as our own. And be willing to acknowledge if it’s our kid doing the bullying – to not brush it under the rug.

Patrick Prothe


Bullying will never go away. So how can we minimize the impacts?

The harsh reality is that bullying will never go away. As long as there have been people, there have been bullies. They just have more potent, far reaching tools with which to wield their power. Therefore we need to manage it. To contain it. Make it unattractive.

My third-grade daughter has seen bullies since at least first grade. There’s a group of mean girls that gave her grief starting then, and while second grade was a nice reprieve (they set their sites on others) she’s seen some of that this year. It’s starts out subtle, and continues when they get a reaction. As a parent, it’s painful to see – and since she has a great group of NICE friends, not too tough to manage thus far. Especially since they’ve not yet started using social media.

So how can we parents manage the bullies? More important, how can we teach our kids how to fend for themselves? I don’t pretend to have the answers but let’s think out loud here.

Since we can’t eliminate bullies, I see two possible approaches:

  1. Help the bullied and non-bullies. This involves setting expectations for engaging online – what you share and who you share it with. Know as best you can who your friends are.
  2. Help the bullies. Yes, go right to the source. Show them a healthier way to engage online. I can’t imagine many bullies feel good about themselves. Insecurity breeds such behavior.

I’m currently reading Switch by the Heath brothers about how to facilitate change. It talks about approaching big change by focusing on the easiest, smallest solution. Things you can affect when you don’t have any power. The key analogy is the elephant and the rider. The elephant is your emotional side and the rider, your rational side. You can guess who usually wins and therefore why you need to find a way to appeal to both.

For your kids, set them up for success by instilling a sense of confidence and security knowing they’re valued, worthwhile people. Particularly, girls need a lot of support during their teenage years – even when they think their parents are stupid and don’t want them around – they DO WANT them around according to Michael Gerber in the Wonder of Girls. They’re not ready to be independent adults as much as they pretend they want to be. It’s during this time that he says many parents pull away thinking their kids are becoming self-sufficient and don’t need them as much. But they do. So no matter how hard it is as a parent, we gotta stay in the game. (Not that we don’t, but . . .)

Help kids develop a healthy network of friends – I’d like to believe that if there’s a strong network willing to support each other, they can overcome the negative effects of bullying and make it less attractive. Online or off.  I tend to believe that the more unattractive we make bullying by minimizing the impact, the less likely the bullies are to continue.

Help the bullies find more productive outlets. One of the examples cited in Switch was a kid who was an extreme trouble maker in school. Always disrupting class, he spent much time in the principal’s office and didn’t seem to have much hope of changing. One person, however, looked at the 20% of the time he succeeded. What was different. Turns out the teacher in the class he did better politely greeted him at the door each day. Treated him with a bit of respect whereas the others, avoided him more or less. What if we looked at the times when bullies were nice? What was different? And then try to extend what worked.

As a society, it seems we need to make bullying unattractive. This is a bigger nut to crack as unless you’re either experience bullying, have kids who are, or simply aware and care, you’re not going to focus your attention on it. Let’s face it, most of us have plenty of things clamoring for our attention. Particularly in tougher economic times. And I’d suggest it’s these times that breed more bullying. When people struggle with making ends meet they’ll look for an outlet for their frustrations.

So let’s get the ideas on the table. None are too simple. In fact, from what I’ve gleaned from Switch, it’s the simplest ideas that can be the most effective because they snowball. Let’s start small and see where this goes. Join #smsafety this evening at 9:00 EST.

– Patrick Prothe

Today it’s different

It used to be that when you were bullied at school, you could go home and escape it. You could switch schools, towns. And leave your past behind. But today your past follows you wherever you go. Bullying doesn’t stay within the confines of school. It may start there or may start online and go there. The implications in the connected social world are serious. Just as social networks can be used for good, they can be used for evil. They give bullies more power. And more opportunities to remain anonymous.

Growing up I was bullied. I feared a lot of the kids around me. Why? I was too skinny and had a voice that just wasn’t becoming of a boy. Rather, it was most definitely soprano. Think boy meets piccolo. Painful at the time, I fortunately gained a real voice, a few needed pounds and became an avid runner. Even lifted weights for a few years but you’d never have noticed. Somehow I was not going to be a threat to any Mr. Universe candidate.

I moved on. Came into my own and have never looked back. But as Daniel Solove so eloquently writes in his book, The Future of Reputation, that’s virtually impossible today. He illustrates this with Dog Poop Girl. Go ahead, Google that. I’ll wait.

Is this what you found? The short story is that a Korean woman’s (link= dog pooped on the subway, she didn’t clean it up, someone took a picture of the scene and posted it online. She was eventually identified and had to drop out of college as a result of the pressure. What’s remarkable about this is the now famous incident happened in 2005 long before we had the myriad tools we have today. Two years before the iPhone launched the smart phone revolution.

No matter where you are in the world, you can read this story as long as you’re connected. I don’t think most people have really thought about the implications of what they share online. And what a scary-good memory Google has.

Bullies may do something in the moment not thinking about the reach. Or long term effects of their actions. Parents likely don’t realize the permanence of Google. Or have the conversations with their kids about the social web. Maybe it’s the kids teaching the parents. The concept of privacy today has been turned on its head. The reality is, we’re living our lives in public. We’re not quite living The Truman Show, but getting closer every year.

We need to start talking with our kids – and spreading the word – about the effects of bullying today. How a few hurtful words today can follow someone for years to come. Eroding their self-esteem or ability to form meaningful relationships and get a job. Or worse. Am I being overly dramatic? I don’t think so.

I encourage you not to wait to have the tough conversations. Share the story of Dog Poop Girl. We can’t assume they’ll think about the impact of their actions up front. Did you always think about the consequences of what you did then? I sure didn’t. Maybe society will catch up with technology and we’ll develop a new set of norms. Maybe we’ll become self-policing.  Maybe we can inspire our kids to spread the word. They’re often smarter than we give ‘em credit for. But for now, spread the word. In the public world, bullying is more serious than ever.