Bullying and the Five Firsts of Friendship
Conflict is a normal part of healthy development. In conflict both parties are upset and have lost perspective about ways they are connected. Sorting out that conflict in a way that restores or adjusts that connection teaches us about compromise, boundaries, negotiation, and forgiveness. But in a bullying situation, the instigator is calm and feels certain about the connection to the victim while the victim is upset and lost.
As martial artists, our training works first towards not being a victim. Victims are characterized by social isolation, poor interpersonal skills, and becoming agitated when prompted by a bully who is remaining calm. Studies have shown that the effective treatment for victims and bullies is the same – both have to be trained in healthy interpersonal skills modeled at home and at school.
One of my favorite philosophies in the Cuong Nhu curriculum is the Five Firsts of Friendship. I’ll admit I used to think of it only as a list of practices that would help a person have friends. But over many years of teaching children, I’ve come to see it as the first drill in cultivating one of the most important attributes that a person can have – Courage. The practice of Five Firsts also aligns with research on what works to defuse bullying. It connects people to their peers and reinforces positive inter-personal communication. A person who is fearless and connected to other people will never be bullied, nor will they bully.
The list is not “Five Ways to Make Friends”, nor is it the first five things you’ll do with your friends. The reason the word “First” is there is because you can’t wait for someone else to start. You have to act first in an uncertain situation. Does this philosophy sound familiar? “Start the Revolution Within Yourself!” “Be the change you wish to see in the world!” Start by being the first to talk to people, to smile, to put yourself out there in small ways that teach us about bravery. Then go deeper by offering your concern, compassion, property, and labor. When we get to “care” and “share” we’re risking more and therefore learning more about courage.
I use sharing as an example with kids because they hear about it all the time at home and at school. My example goes like this: We’re at school eating lunch and after taking a bite of my sandwich I look at you with great wonder and say, “Wow. I think this is the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten! I can’t keep something this good to myself! Would you like to share it with me?” Then I ask them two questions: “Would you take it?” and “What would you want to do next?” The answer is always the same. Yes, and then you would look for something precious to share back. The kid sitting next to you will see the meaningful connection and also want to share. The first domino is the only one that needs to be knocked down.
The point of the “Firsts” is to practice bravery in small ways that are sure to receive positive reinforcement, allowing the student to grow bolder. By the time you get to “Forgiveness” you’re practicing powerful selflessness. Forgiveness isn’t just letting someone off on conditions; it means completely erasing their debt to you.
Now for the hard part. Bullies are kids, too. When they’re after our kids it’s easy to vilify them, but these kids are acting out a script in a desperate attempt for acceptance and identity. Recent research indicates that peer intervention advocating for the victim nearly always stops the bullying. If a bully seeks acceptance and peers denounce the act, then it ends. We’ve all seen instances of bullying where bystanders either watch silently or pretend they don’t see. Sadly this goes for teachers almost as much as for students. This is where your practice with the “Firsts” comes to a head. Get out there, bring your friends, and start caring about people. It’s not enough to fight the bully. What really makes a difference is embracing victims and bullies and forging long-term connections. Remember that people who feel good about themselves and their connections to others don’t bully or get bullied. It’s terrifying to go first, but that’s why we start small.