Geoff Johnson: U.S. campaign a teaching opportunity


If the U.S. presidential campaign has brought any benefit to public education, it will be found in the opportunities provided by the thinking of some psychological heavyweights whose academic work shines a light on bullying and the personalities of those whose interaction with others is based on bullying.

Parents and teachers know only too well that the destructive effect of childish bullying is no longer limited to playground confrontations. The Internet is filled with cyber-bullying and hundreds of tragic stories like that of Amanda Todd, who committed suicide as a result of cyber-bullying.

For psychologists and other mental-health professionals, the high-profile emergence of a candidate like Donald Trump has created discussion and understanding, recognition of warning signs of bullying behaviour and recommendations about interventions that might yet be of benefit to those whose task it is to guide the growth and development of children.

For mental-health professionals, Trump is at once a bonanza of clinical material and a challenge.

“Remarkably narcissistic,” said developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education best known among educators for his work on types of intelligence.

“Textbook narcissistic personality disorder,” echoed clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis.

“He’s so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example of his characteristics,” said clinical psychologist George Simon, who conducts lectures and seminars on manipulative behaviour. “Otherwise, I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”

Jaana Juvonen, a University of California psychologist who is the co-author of a recent literature review and an upcoming book chapter about bullying, said Trump seems to tick many of the requisite boxes when it comes to how bullies act.

“Bullies also ‘feel really good about themselves,’ ” said Juvonen, but it’s a shallow sort of confidence.

“They come out looking like they have very high self-esteem,” she explained, “but one way to think about it is that self-esteem is so highly dependent on popularity, so if there’s any problem, if somebody dares to criticize them, that might make them more vulnerable … when somebody criticizes them, they attack immediately … they can’t stand that they are being criticized.”

“Not that bullies are a uniform, homogeneous group, but the sort of classic bully is one who is narcissistic, is after power, often charismatic and therefore popular.”

Author James Lehman specializes in advising parents about how to intervene when their child exhibits bullying behaviour.

“Why do some kids turn to bullying?” he asks in an article for the online publication Empowering Parents.

“The answer is simple,” writes Lehman, “it solves their social problems. After all, it’s easier to bully somebody than to work things out, manage your emotions and learn to solve problems. Bullying is the proverbial ‘easy way out.’ ”

Lehman goes on to counsel: “Make no mistake, kids use bullying primarily as an alternative to the social skills they’re supposed to develop in grade school, middle school and high school. As children go through their developmental stages, they should be finding ways of working problems out and getting along with other people. This includes learning how to read social situations, make friends and understand their social environment.”

Most child psychologists agree that it is important for children to learn how to resolve conflicts and manage emotions. Children need to learn the skills of compromise, sacrifice, empathy, sharing and dealing with perceived injustice. They need to learn how to manage their impulses, and if their impulse is to hit or hurt or call someone names, they have to learn to deal with that in an appropriate way.

For parents and teachers, this might be a good time to talk with children about empathy, which is about understanding others, and compassion, which is about how we act toward others. This might be a good time to talk about how scary it would be to find yourself consumed by hate stirred by fear of people different than you.

Whether it provides a clearer focus on the ugliness of bullying behaviour or just the importance of living successfully in a diverse society here in Canada, the U.S. presidential campaign has provided an abundance of teachable moments.

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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