What Kids Think About Bullying And Kindness In The Trump Era : NPR Ed A national survey of elementary school students asks about kindness as well as cruelty.
NPR logo What Kids Think About Bullying And Kindness In The Trump Era

What Kids Think About Bullying And Kindness In The Trump Era

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Kindness grows like a weed
LA Johnson/NPR

"There was a girl in my class who had on dirty clothes. The other kids laughed at her but I played with her during recess."

That's an everyday act of kindness toward a child who is being ostracized. It was reported by an elementary school student who took part in a new, nationally-representative survey of children ages 9 to 11. The purpose was to capture not only the bad, but also the good of how children treat each other, and even a little bit of the why.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • A large majority, 77 percent, reported witnessing bullying at some point.
  • 1 in 5 kids admitted to being a bully.
  • Only 14 percent strongly agreed that our nation's leaders model how to treat people with kindness.

Vicky Rideout, an experienced youth researcher, conducted the survey in September, 2017, of 1,054 children. It was commissioned by the Cartoon Network.

A nationally representative bullying survey is important now, in the post-Trump era, because many observers have been watching for any possible impact from the polarization of national discourse on our schools. Some studies have found that teachers are observing higher anxiety in the classroom.

This survey didn't come in markedly higher than previous findings when it came to kids reporting habitually being bullied. However, even these youngest students are reporting a big difference between the kind of behavior the adults around them are modeling, and what they see at the top. More than nine out of 10 kids agree that both the adults in their family, and the ones at school, set good examples on kind behavior. Just 46 percent say the adults in our government do the same.

For this survey, the researchers actually conducted field tests to assure that 9- to 11-year-olds understood the definition of bullying. The point was to distinguish bullying from run-of-the-mill unkindness or aggression, perhaps between friends.

Here are the three components generally used to define bullying that the researchers used:

  • It includes physical harm, mean names, rumors, stealing or breaking things, social exclusion and can happen in person or online.
  • There is a power differential between the bully and the victim.
  • The behavior is repeated.

And using that strict definition, 14 percent of respondents said they had themselves been bullied "many times", as distinguished from nearly two-thirds who said they had been bullied at some point in their lives.

That's roughly in line with other surveys that have tried to capture the rate of recent instances of bullying for children this age and older, with findings ranging from 20 to 13.4 percent.

But there's a brighter side to the picture as well.

  • 64 percent of children report having tried to help a kid who was being bullied.
  • More than 8 in 10 say they have gone out of their way to do something kind for another kid who was having a tough time, and nearly half (46 percent) say they have done so "many times."
  • Girls, African-American children and kids from low-income homes were each much more likely than others to report having done something kind "many times." While this is all self-reported, "there is some evidence that low-income kids, and kids of color, are significantly more likely to be community-minded, to live interdependent lives, to help each other out,'" said Richard Weissbourd, of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who advised the survey.
  • And values seem to be connected to action. The three-quarters of elementary school students who said that caring for others was "very important" to them, were twice as likely as other kids to say they have gone out of their way to do something kind for another kid (53 percent vs. 27 percent) and half as likely to admit to being bullies themselves.

It's too soon to say whether this survey represents the continuation of a previously observed national upward trend in social and emotional skills and school climate. But it does stand out for drawing attention to the small positive acts that can make a powerful difference in a child's life. More than 8 out of 10 kids say it would help kids be kinder if every kid had a person in their lives who really cared and listened.