10 Ways Adults Teach Kids to Bully

As parents and teachers, we spend a lot of time talking to kids about bullying and encouraging them to treat others with kindness and respect. Yet in our own lives, we often contradict ourselves. We forget that kids are always watching and learning from our behaviors. Often we say all the right things to our kids, but we teach them all the wrong things with our actions. We do this unintentionally through actions that seem like common practices.  Here are 10 ways adults (often unintentionally) teach kids to bully.

Excluding Other Adults
We encourage kids to include one another, invite all of their classmates to parties, etc., but as adults we’re often very choosy about who we interact with. Have your kids ever seen you change plans at the last minute so you could spend time with someone you liked better or listened to you beg off an invitation to a party because you don’t really like those people much? Maybe you have a group of men or women you regularly spend time with. Does that group come off as exclusionary? Do you only interact with certain parents during pickup and drop off or at school functions? Even if you don’t like certain adults or have nothing in common with them, taking the time to say hello to them or include them in a conversation can go a long way. And, as you likely tell your children, who knows, you might make a new friend.

Calling People Names
“He’s a jerk.”
“That idiot took my parking spot.”
As adults we often throw around put downs without stopping to think about what we’re really saying. Yet when our children do the same, we’re quick to put them in their place. While occasionally putting someone down isn’t die-hard bullying, it’s still a bad practice to teach to children and can lead to behaviors that do represent bullying. If there’s someone from work or in the neighborhood who is always getting on your nerves, choose your words about those people carefully, especially when your children are around.

Criticizing Others
Calling people names isn’t the only way you can indirectly teach your children to bully through your words. Do you always come home and criticize a co-worker or talk about how bad someone is? If all you do is criticize the people you interact with, what do you think your children will do in their own conversations? This applies to how you talk to your children too. Adults should teach children how to encourage people and build them up, not tear them down with criticism.

Taunting and Teasing
Adults often like to engage in harmless taunting and teasing. It happens when you jokingly say to a friend, “oh you’re so stupid,” or when you’re watching a sports game and hurl an insult at the other team. In the moment, it’s all in good fun, but not when children are listening in. Children may turn around and use those same insults when talking to others, but they don’t have the filter to tell them when these words are harmless teasing versus actual put downs. As adults, it’s best to realize that no teasing is truly harmless and to carefully choose our words when joking with friends or supporting our favorite sports teams.

Interrupting and Ignoring Others
Chances are you’ve been in a meeting where someone has constantly interrupted others or dominated the entire conversation. While this may simply be a sign of a lack of manners, it can also be a subtle way of bullying. People who continually interrupt or try to one up other people often send the message that the other person’s thoughts, actions, and experiences aren’t good enough. If your children pick up on that message, they may start sending to the same message to their peers.

Being Narcissistic
By the same token, always talking about how much smarter, prettier, happier, wealthier, nicer, more helpful, etc. that we are than people can send the wrong message to children and indirectly cause them to become bullies. There’s a place for self-confidence and appreciation for what you have, but not to the point that it tears others down or puts you on a pedestal above them.

“Did you hear the latest about so and so?”
As adults, it seems that gossiping is often part of our second nature. We always want to know the latest news and speculate about what is going on in other people’s lives. Children are often listening to our phone conversations and chat sessions with friends and family members. As a result, they learn how to model their own conversations in the same way, which often leads to them spreading rumors and gossip about their peers.

Threatening and Intimidating People
Assertiveness is a good skill, particularly for people who work in business, but assertive and powerful people can sometimes let their power and desire to get what they want go too far. Are people afraid of you? Do they do things because they’re worried that you’ll harm them or blow up in their face? If children see that these kinds of behaviors regularly get you what you want, they’ll learn to do the same. There’s nothing wrong with being assertive and striking a bit of healthy fear in people, but when you threaten and intimidate others, you take these behaviors too far. Remember to deal with others with kindness and respect.

Acting Impulsively
We’ve all had those moments where we’ve said or done something we wish we hadn’t. Typically those moments come because we don’t take the time to stop and think before we act. While impulsive outbursts may not seem like they encourage bullying, they often involve treating others poorly. Teaching children to act impulsively can cause them to lash out at others rather than stopping to consider the effect of their words and actions.

Standing on the Sidelines
One of the biggest points emphasized in anti-bullying curriculum is that kids should speak up when they see bullying. However, as adults, we don’t often speak up when we see bullying taking place. How often have you told someone who yelled at a cashier that his/her actions were uncalled for? What about when people get in an argument at a store or an airport? It takes a lot of courage to stand up and say, “Hey, that’s really unnecessary” or confront the bully in another way. If it takes courage for adults to stand up to bullies, imagine how much courage it takes for kids to do the same.

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