“Love your neighbor as yourself; do unto others as you would have them do unto you; whatever is hateful to yourself, do not do to others.” The Golden Rule
The Golden Rule
What memories do the words of The Golden Rule conjure up for you? A scolding from your mother about why you shouldn’t steal your little brother’s Halloween candy? Guidance from your second grade teacher about why you need to give everyone in your class a valentine? A pep talk from your football coach about why wedgies don’t promote team spirit?
When most of us think about The Golden Rule we usually think about “being nice” to people. We know that we usually get back what we give out. We see The Golden Rule as a kind of cosmic fulcrum that should balance the karma of the world: everyone living ethically and treating people the way they want to be treated. In a perfect world, if everyone lived according to the principles of The Golden Rule, we wouldn’t need to spend millions in tax dollars on judges, court systems, divorce lawyers, prisons, and complicated government policies and procedures.
Unfortunately, none of us are angels, and as long as people are alive on earth, we’ll experience conflict. Our world will be imperfect, and some people will try to push us around and act like bullies. But, unfortunately, the harder we try to stop kids from acting like bullies, the bigger the problem becomes. The minute someone responds to them like a victim, they’ve gotten what they’ve been looking for.
The question you’re probably asking is, Why? According to Izzy Kalman, a school psychologist and psychotherapist since 1978 and my mentor, “Bullying cannot be reduced by treating it like a crime. The behaviors that are being called bullying today are more appropriately called aggression or dominance behavior, and are part of the fabric of life. The attempt to outlaw human nature is bound to create more harm than good. If laws could make social and interpersonal problems disappear, all we would need to do is pass enough laws and we would have Utopia. The true solution is good psychology, teaching people to use their brains to understand and solve their problems.”
Law of Reciprocity
What psychologists have discovered is that we’re all hard-wired for something called the Law of Reciprocity: I’m gonna treat you the way you treat me. If you’re nice to me, it’s safe for me to be nice to you. We can see the Law of Reciprocity demonstrated in the way we choose friends and treat our enemies. As humans, we tend to hang out with people who are nice to us and make us feel safe and secure. But if you’re mean to me, it could be dangerous for me to be nice back. I feel like I need to protect myself, and to do that, I need to show that I’m tougher than you.
Most people (except those who struggle with neurological or mental illnesses) don’t feel like being mean to people who treat them with kindness. Returning evil for good makes us feel uncomfortable. If I live life according to the Law of Reciprocity, I’ll treat you like you treat me, and the minute you’re mean to me, I’m gonna send some “mean” right back to you.
But if I live according to The Golden Rule, I gain an upper hand over you by refusing to be a victim and responding in kindness. Doing good for others means I have the power to diffuse their anger and hostility and to break cycles of aggression. When I’m kind to my bullies, they lose power over me because they’re not getting what they want. They’re wired to return kindness for kindness. They lose and I win.
In reality, we all win.
A Letter of Testimony
Nothing reinforces the Law of Reciprocity more clearly than a letter from a parent who nearly lost her child’s life to bullying. My colleague Izzy Kalman and I have have received hundreds of testimonials from parents that this approach works. Here is one from a mother who states that the program saved her son’s life, after numerous anti-bullying interventions only made the problem worse:
My son attends a large magnet school for academically-talented kids. The first year he was bullied I reported it to the vice-principal, who said, in no uncertain terms, that he would take care of it. He handled it according to policy (they have a "whole school policy") and things grew worse, for now not only was the group of 8 other boys bullying him but they let other kids know that they had gotten in trouble for it.
Soon other kids joined in to bully him, and along with them an administrator/teacher who felt my son deserved to be bullied. (One thing administrators don't get is that bullied kids often look as if they are troublemakers, because they are responding to being punched in the back, stabbed with pencils, books thrown to the floor, etc). In fact, this teacher started viciously bullying my son herself. Then I had to intervene with her and threaten action (she got quite out of hand with her bullying). When this happened, she mocked my son . . . and warned other teachers that my son was a "troublemaker."
So then he was labeled by teachers and ostracized and bullied by kids, and it mushroomed out of control, including physical, verbal, cyber- and cell-phone bullying. His accounts were hacked; he was receiving ugly text messages and phone calls. Awful.
At this point other administrators got involved, and it continued to escalate until one day my son received a terrible death threat, detailed and gruesome, so ugly that he feared going to school. I reported it to the school, and they followed procedure and brought the two boys together for "conflict resolution." Good lord. The kid who threatened my son became a hero, and more kids began to threaten and mock my son. Every intervention made things worse: mine, teachers, administrators, psychologists, on and on, auditorium programs, ridiculous health class exercises, classroom visits from high school kids.
Meantime, I was madly reading everything I could lay my hands on about bullying—I was up days and nights researching. I also sought professional help—child psychologists, well-regarded—and their advice was the same as the literature: ineffective.
When you watch your child sinking, helpless, into suicidal thoughts, panic, despair, I cannot tell you how terrible that is. Changing schools, in his condition, made little sense and was a huge gamble since, given the world we live in, the bullying was quite likely to find its way to any other school he attended, and I wasn't in a position to move out of the city.
In my son's darkest hour, I happened upon Mr. Kalman's website. [His advice] sounded crazy to me, but I was out of answers. He was the only one to sound a different note—it's remarkable how homogenous the bullying literature is. There was also a kind of common sense in his approach, a practical wisdom and understanding that the bullying literature simply doesn't have. The bullying literature is, in effect, literature about literature rather than observation and analysis of specific cases, generally. Those that look at empirical evidence invariably conclude that the approaches don't work.
What I came to learn, personally and from the mountain of research I read, is that they DO NOT WORK. They exacerbate the problem. They make the bullied kid feel terrible about himself, and they excite and expand the ranks of the bullies.
But I can't say that I approached Mr. Kalman's method with great confidence. It seemed too straightforward.
My son tried it and it worked. Instantly. One day he was bullied, the next day it stopped. Kids immediately (weirdly, almost magically) lost interest as soon as my son acted nonchalant in response to their mockery. Frankly, this experience has had a terrible effect on my own feelings about human beings: we are a bunch of monkeys, easily aroused and easily manipulated.
Let me add that Mr. Kalman's advice is not to "ignore" bullying. That's a naive reduction. This is a real force is that empowers the victim, teaches him not to take attacks personally, not to own it. You must learn to respond to provocation with a different, empowered attitude—nonchalant, unaffected, even mildly amused or surprised by bullying behavior. That's easier said than done when your self-esteem is being pummeled, but somehow my son managed. He pulled it off and it worked like a charm. Truly. It has been several months now, and he is no longer the object of assault. Now and again he gets teased, but he blows it off and the teasing moves on in search of another victim. He has learned to roll with, or roll off, the punches.
He's stronger, sadly, and less open to people, less the outgoing, funny, popular kid he was before all this brutality. No more panic attacks, no more depression. But he's back on the honor roll, he’s making –-very tentatively – a few friends. He's taking an interest in his appearance and doesn't dread going to school, or no more than any teen-age boy.
I have the feeling that Mr. Kalman saved my son's life. Bravo, Mr. K. Glad to hear that someone is joining in this important work. Perhaps soon you can accumulate enough "empirical evidence" to have an impact on monkey island.
Unfortunately, too many of our children are living on “monkey island,” in a world where teachers and administrators unwittingly ape the behavior of the bullies they’re attempting to reform.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. For instance, the Ladakhi people of Tibet have created a society where bullying does not exist. Ladakh is a region of the Himalayas adjacent to Tibet, and the people there follow Tibetan Buddhism. The Ladakhi take turns helping one another plant and harvest, and while they have no government, possess no technology, and use no currency except in rare instances, they have everything they need. When people attempt to stir the Ladakhi to anger, their response is, “What’s the point?” Their culture has taught them to refuse to respond like victims. In fact, their deepest insult is to call someone “One who angers easily.”
The Ladakhi do not acknowledge people who get angry; therefore, people who are stirred to anger do not possess power in their society. From infancy, the Ladakhi teach their children to be unmoved by anger and to consider those who are stirred to anger to be the victims of others. They simply teach their children not to act like victims and get angry. In essence, they teach them to live out the principles of The Golden Rule.
And it works.
Tapping into Ultimate Power
Living out the principles of The Golden Rule gives us ultimate power over bullies. When we act like friends and refuse to act like victims, bullies don’t get what they want—our angry responses. Kindness confuses or frustrates them, and they simply move on to other victims who satisfy their desire for reciprocal behavior. Our kindness and grace is our best defensive tool for disarming them and turning the tables as we gain a position of control over them.
But living out The Golden Rule doesn’t mean that we let people walk all over us or that we give in to what they want. There will be times when we will be forced to say “no” to people for their own good, for our good, and for the good of others. Living out The Golden Rule doesn’t mean we allow people to abuse or hurt us or others. But we must be committed to communicating kindly and without hidden motives of retribution for the other person.
People within the anti-bullying movement often misuse The Golden Rule. They often interpret it to mean, “Don’t act like a bully. I’ll be nice to you IF you’re nice to me, but bully me, and you’ll be punished.”
But the true meaning of The Golden Rule is exactly the opposite: “You over there, stop acting like a victim and do the tough thing. Show love and forgiveness, no matter what.”
Tough words. Nothing about reciprocity in that message – just sacrifice and leadership and courage, the true message of The Golden Rule.
Why We Don’t Want the Golden Rule to Work
But deep inside all of us a voice niggles that something just isn’t right about this Golden Rule idea. And even if The Golden Rule sounds noble, if we admit it, the idea of responding to our enemies with love and forgiveness ticks us off a bit.
• We’ve all been bullied. And we’ve all wanted to fling a punch or launch a verbal assault in return. Something inside us is shouting, “Hey, how about a little justice here . . . a little revenge, even.”
• The idea of science-based anti-bullying solutions sounds good. Why take on the tough work of personal responsibility and love and forgiveness when we can pass the buck to educationally rubber-stamped programs that make the bully the bad guy and let us and our kids off the hook?
• Anti-bullying programs give us reasons to blame the other guy. We can claim our role as the victim, point fingers, and demand every benefit offered from The Emotional Welfare State we’re living in.
• Fighting bullies feels moral and makes us feel good. Especially when we’ve invested millions of dollars in the battle. Admitting we’re fighting a losing battle makes us look silly. We’d have to admit our efforts were a failure and start over, and who wants to admit failure?
Aristotle had this all figured out more than two thousand years ago. He stated, "The one thing that no state or government can do, no matter how good it is, is to make its citizens morally virtuous. Moral behavior is a choice and can’t be forced on people. But the anti-bullying movement attempts to do just that: make bullies morally virtuous people.
That’s because their philosophy is based on the idea that bullying is a learned behavior. Kids bully because they learn bullying behavior. Aristotle understood that we’re all imperfect people who treat one another in self-centered ways. One look at our schools, our marriages, our government systems, our courts, our international relationships, our racial relationships, our interfaith relationships demonstrates that are humans, we’ve all mastered bullying and can take lessons from the Ladakhi of Tibet.
Izzy Kalman has summarized the need for The Golden Rule in our lives and the role of personal responsibility: “If we are to have any chance of achieving a meaningful reduction in bullying, there is one fact we all need to recognize: There is only one person in the world who can get people to treat you well. And that person is you.”
By Brooks Gibbs