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Playground Psychology

Playground behavior is like a petri dish of the larger themes of personality, dominance and class structure that play out in adult life. Disturbing thought, isn't it?

What was Donald Trump like as a kid? How about Mother Theresa? Professionals and arm chair psychologists alike would probably agree that personality is quite static. A kind and gentle, passive child is more likely to become a kind, nurturing adult than a child who is extremely aggressive and mean. While human behavior is not actually that neat and linear, it stands to reason that this would be the case. It's good common sense.

Multiple factors, including socioeconomic status, race, gender, family structure and relationship dynamics influence the ways in which children interact with one another. But young children aren't nuanced enough to specifically identify these as factors in the way they treat one another, right? Kid A may not consciously realize that Kid B is from a home where there is poverty and high stress; Kid A is more focused on themselves, and appropriately so given developmental stages of young children; yet Kid A might pick on Kid B and not even be able to articulate the underlying reasons why they chose that kid to bully. (Not that there ever IS a good reason, obviously). So how do these factors affect playground psychology? How and why does Kid A identify Kid B as a target for abusive behavior, and better yet, how do we stop it from happening?

Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that we are highly attuned beings. We use far more social and bodily cues than we consciously realize. Some assert that 90% of communication is through body language. For example, how do you know when you're encountering someone who is shy? Generally their body language and limited eye contact communicate far more about someone's comfort level in social situations than anything they'll actually say. Children also have an innate sense of one another and this establishes a 'pecking order' of sorts, which determines who plays with whom, which kids are ostracized and which kids are in power positions in their social circle. Some suggest that children who may struggle with picking up on social cues of their peers or interpreting social cues may be more inclined to be bullied (livescience.com, Robin Nixon, Feb 2010). Other factors may be differences in appearance and behaviors; intellectual gifts or deficits, or any other trifling factor that may set a child outside of the social norm in his/her peer group.  In this age of social media and 24/7 access to one another via phone and screen, kids face a new breed of bullying that transcends the playground and seems to abandon all formerly accepted theories of bullying. This more recent breed of bullying takes character defamation to a new level.  There is far less inhibition behind the computer screen and an added level of security in its anonymity. Anyone is fair game, at any time, day or night.


Relationships in Schools

There are many schools of thought on the sources of behavioral interactions in childhood. One developmental theory focuses on the learned behaviors that we are steeped in from an early age. "Early family experiences contribute to a child's sociability and social competence. The process of becoming ready for friendship may begin in infancy. Children who have secure attachments in infancy are more popular in preschool and engage more freely in social interactions. They are perceived as more helpful and better able to consider the needs of others, "(Sroufe & Fleeson, 1986; Park and Waters, 1989).

Intuitively, we understand that children mimic their parents’ behaviors; when you see an aggressive child on the playground, it is easy to imagine that this child has experienced or witnessed aggressive behaviors and is acting on those learned behaviors. "Mothers who use power-assertive discipline techniques and who believe that aggression is an acceptable way of resolving conflicts have children who expect to get their way by asserting power in peer conflicts," (Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach 5th Edition, Barbara M. Newman, Philip R. Newman, 1991).

However, a more recent study by Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee followed children in grades 6,7 and 8 for over four years and concluded that an even more prevalent factor in bullying behavior with peers is social status. Faris is quoted as saying, "Seemingly normal, well adjusted kids can be aggressive. We found that status increases aggression." This study suggests that socioeconomic factors, race, gender and other dynamics that had previously been considered risk factors, were less relevant than the popularity of a child within their social group. While these other factors were not discounted, Faris and Felmlee discovered that popularity was at least as important of a dynamic that contributed to bullying behaviors among childhood peer relationships (healthland.time.com, Belinda Luscombe, Feb 2011). So that's pretty horrible, when you think about it. The more popular a child becomes, the more likely they are to bully other children? These findings reek of social Darwinism, and yet it resonates with something we deeply understand about human behavior, but do not often like to entertain: people are opportunistic. Even young children and teens have the capacity of misusing power because, to a degree, it is in our nature to do so, for some more than others.


Bullying Psychology

Bullying is difficult to extinguish because there's too much to be gained by being dominant; the currency of dominance on the playground is enticing. It has, however, reached epic proportions and is finally getting the public recognition that it needs in order to help identify it when it happens and put an end to it.  There are multiple national efforts underway to educate and eradicate bullying in our schools.

And how do we do that? How do we stop these behaviors that are often so subversive and underground? That is the million-dollar question with no easy answer. Maybe part of our work as a culture is to challenge the status quo and identify areas in the adult world in which bullying is tacit part of the social norm; maybe we need to change up the power structure somehow, or redefine what it means to be a person in power who has humility and compassion. We can't change human nature, but we can influence the ways in which we respond to it and reinforce a healthier attitude toward power differential in our children.


Newman, B; Newman, P.,(1991). Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach. Pacific Grove , CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Nixon, R. (2010, February). Studies Reveal Why Children Get Bullied and Rejected. http://www.livescience.com/6032-studies-reveal-kids-bullied-rejected.html

Luscombe, B. (2011, February). Why Kids Bully: Because They're Popular. http://healthland.time.com/2011/02/08/do-popular-kids-bully-more/

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