Monday, September 16, 2013

On the Moral Compass of Children

The news showed up just before Yom Kippur, just before that time of deep reflection when we wrestle with the challenges of being human: Girl's Suicide Points to Rise in Apps Used by Cyberbullies.

Fifteen Florida middle school children participated in bullying another child so relentlessly that she took her own life. At age 12. Twelve. When I read this, I found myself muttering, almost moaning, aloud. Rebecca Sedwick was "absolutely terrorized on social media" says the local sheriff.

Rebecca Sedwick

How could these kids do this to another human being? Who is the evil child living in the world who would send this text message: "Can u die please?"

What? asked Bella, on hearing my audible shock. I hesitated telling her about the article--for a minute--because the idea of discussing suicide with my children is somehow sickening. I don't want them to know that it exists. But of course, like just about everything in this world, they know, or they will know, whether or not I tell them. Instead of trying to explain, I said read this, and handed her the article. At 10.5, she's not much younger than Rebecca. She will be in middle school next year. And she will get a phone, in not too long. I wanted her to know, in the starkest terms, that every word that she types, anywhere, has lasting effects, both on herself, and on others.

Bella was mystified by the article. "But why were the kids mean to her? Why?" she asked. As if there should be a reason. 

"It doesn't matter why," I told her. 

Do I think that Bella is a potential bully? I certainly hope not. But one must ask: did the parents of those fifteen children think their children were? And what did they do to prevent them from unleashing such hatred on another human being? 

Is it even plausible that such a large group of children all were lacking a moral compass? The dynamics of the group are strange and powerful. Children will gang up on the weak, even if their individual inclination is to be kind. It's a mob mentality, where ethics go out the window, and evil spreads like fire. When the horror is over, the individual child might defend himself saying, "But it wasn't just me! Everyone was doing it!" So the group becomes both the impetus, and the excuse. 

This is not a phenomenon seen only in children, of course. Think about the Holocaust. Think about neighbors turning in neighbors.

A parent of a teenager told me that the students in her daughter's high school are required to sign an anti-bullying pledge at the beginning of each year. I wonder if those pledges work. I wonder if, perhaps, Rebecca Sedwick's bullies had to sign one; according to a school official, the school has an "extensive anti-bullying campaign." They do? What the hell is happening in this campaign?

The term cyberbullies makes the culprits sound like strangers on the internet out to terrorize young people, when in fact these were classmates of the victim. The article mentions that there was regular bullying, too--i.e. pushing and hitting. Though unmentioned, there was undoubtedly also social isolation and intimidation--common forms of bullying, especially among girls, that often go unnoticed and unaddressed. It doesn't matter where or how they did their evil work, the end result is the same: a group of children terrorized another child, with no regard for her feelings or her well-being. 

It seems to me that the more explicit we are with kids about our expectations of them, the more information they have to make ethical decisions. We tell toddlers, over and over, to "be nice." We need to find a way to tell older kids to be nice, too, in ways that they understand, in as stark terms as necessary. Maybe we can start by having them read the article.

May Rebecca Sedwick's memory be for a blessing...


  1. I hadn't heard of this story yet. Will have to take a look and share with my older kids. My step-daughter in particular. She recently told me she enjoyed talking to her one friend on the phone because they went over all the "drama" from the day. I told her drama is only drama if you treat it as such, then asked her for an example. She shared the story of a girl who wasn't invited to a party that a bunch of girls were talking about, right in front of the girl. Not sure if that constitutes bullying, but I'm sure that child felt isolated. Sadly we know where bullying can end, but where/when does it start?

    1. t's an important question, with no easy answer. Kindness above all else, I suppose? Interesting that your step-daughter used the word "drama" because it reminded me of this Op-Ed that explores this very term:

    2. I wonder about giving our children a diversity of places and opportunities to make meaningful social connections. School can be limiting and if the social structures in some schools are isolating for some children, might we be able to offer alternative places (after school, weekend activities) where the child can feel at home and have their self-confidence and self-worth boosted? I suppose some of this has to do with one's child being able to share their current predicament and in fact feeling safe enough at home to ask for help and guidance and nurturing.

    3. Yes, I so agree that it's important that children find more than one place in the world, so that school isn't everything. My friend Lee Kaplan, who wrote and performs the powerful one-man show Bully (, told me that his involvement in Jewish camp and youth group (I knew him from USY) are what saved him during those difficult years of bullying at school.


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