A misguided but well-intentioned anti-bullying message went viral recently.
The “crumpled paper” exercise has been used by adults for many years to try to reduce bullying among kids. A mother made a TikTok video in which she conducts the crumpled paper exercise with her children to teach them not to be mean to anyone because like crumpling paper, they will be causing people irreparable, permanent damage. She even shows that a sincere apology is not enough to make amends because it cannot make the paper smooth again.
This TikTok video story has been enthusiastically picked up by a swarm of news reporters and bloggers — most of whom apparently thought that this mother invented the exercise — praising it as a great way to put an end to bullying.
The crumpled paper message is in reality a fleshing-out of the bastardised slogan that has become common in recent years: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can scar me forever.” (For those unfamiliar with the original slogan, it concludes with “but words will never harm me.”)
The problem is that the analogy to crumpled paper is fundamentally flawed. That is why the efforts to teach kids to stop saying mean things haven’t succeeded in reducing bullying, and if anything have made the problem worse, with kids in growing percentages dying by suicide in part because they can’t tolerate being treated demeaningly. It has contributed to the development of what is commonly referred to as snowflakes, and I have termed emotional marshmallows — people who can’t handle any criticism or affront.
A page of paper is dead. If it is torn, the tear remains. If it is crumpled, the wrinkles remain.
But people are alive. One of the basic characteristics of living beings is that they constantly heal. Not only that, they tend to get stronger where the injury occurred. That is the thesis of the bestseller by economist/philosopher Nicholas Nassim Taleb, Anti-Fragile. As the description of the book says,
Just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, and rumors or riots intensify when someone tries to repress them, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil. What Taleb has identified and calls “antifragile” is that category of things that not only gain from chaos, but need it in order to survive and flourish.
It is also a message that is being successfully promoted by Let Grow, the organisation co-founded by the brilliant author and humorist Lenore Skenazy (Free Range Kids) and world-acclaimed psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. As their website declares,
Treating [children] as physically and emotionally fragile is bad for their future — and ours. Let Grow counters the culture of overprotection. We aim to future-proof our kids and our country.
If we didn’t heal, we would be hideous to look at, covered with rashes, cuts, bruises, and every other injury we ever experienced. Our psychic condition would fare no better. We’d be emotional basket cases. Our ability to function would steadily erode until we’d need to be institutionalised.
It is inevitable that we suffer injuries, including injuries to our feelings. But we tend to heal and get stronger. Sometimes we need assistance to heal, both from physical and emotional injuries. And a sincere apology not only has the power to undo harm, it can even lead to an improvement in a relationship. Who among us has not become closer to someone after receiving a heartfelt apology from them? With all respects to those enthralled by the TikTok video, we are decidedly different from pieces of paper.
The downside to the crumpled paper message is as follows. It is intended to teach kids not to be mean to others. But what will happen when kids who believe this message are on the receiving end of meanness (and please realise that most meanness is verbal)? Will they get over it more easily?
On the contrary. They will panic: Oh, no! I’m being scarred forever! By getting highly upset and outraged, they will be unintentionally encouraging their critics and insulters to repeat the assault until they get into a never-ending cycle; that’s how kids become victims of bullying. In desperation, they may act out in violent revenge against their offenders, or take it out on themselves in the form of depression, cutting, and suicide.
It would be much more helpful to teach kids that insults are nothing to get upset about. We all occasionally get treated in ways we don’t like, and part of maturing emotionally is discovering that it is up to us if we get upset. In fact, overcoming verbal assaults is much easier and quicker than healing from physical wounds.
All that’s required is a change in attitude towards the insult. We can quickly show kids through role-playing that we can either get upset when we are insulted, which will make the insults continue, or we can respond calmly and maturely, and the insults will stop.
That is what the original “sticks and stones” slogan was all about, and society, under the guidance of modern politically correct psychology, has foolishly turned it on its head.
And we wonder why bullying continues to be called an epidemic.