{Reader Remarks} Are Bullies Born or Made?

Are Bullies Born or Made  RedWhiteandGrew.com

My new book on bullying and gifted kids will be released mid-July by my publisher, GHF Press. Hurrah!

In case you haven’t heard, the title is Gifted, Bullied, Resilient: A Brief Guide for Smart Families. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing here about the book’s launch, reception, and a couple of public appearances.

While preparing for the book’s arrival, I’ve been, well, nesting. That means, for a writer, cleaning up the blog and my social media channels (especially Facebook and Twitter). In so doing, I ran across the following comment left by a reader a few months back.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on it:

The sad fact is that gifted children are not only bullied by other children, they are also bullied by adults. Growing up as a gifted child I ran into this from a few teachers and it would be a year-long torture. Both of our children are gifted and I noticed a huge change in how teachers and staff related to them. The teachers were more overt in their attacks on gifted kids. My daughter was willing to let the teacher stand in front of the class teaching things that were very, very wrong. After class she would teach her friends what was correct and what was not. Our son, on the other hand, didn’t want his classmates to learn garbage and, in a very diplomatic way, ask the teacher an “I had heard once . . .” type question. Some responded in a positive manner, others threw him out of class. Some office staff were vicious. I actually had to remove both children from a school due to office staff behavior. Other parents in the same school had restraining orders against certain staff. While our son did not go to college, our daughter and I both did. Even in graduate school, we both ran into bullies. Me in seminary, she in medical school. Bullies are the product of their early environments and their own need to feel they have a sense of power somewhere, anywhere. Unfortunately, I believe the only way to end the creation of bullies is early (before age 2) intervention in family life. Most bullies are not born, they are made. And, the only thing a bully understands is a bigger bully. How sad.

What do you think? Have you encountered adults who have bullied children? Do you believe that bullies are solely “born and not made”? Is an aggressive two-year-old doomed for a life of bullying?

Most importantly, what do you believe parents and educators can do to help keep bullying in check, be it from an adult or a child?


  1. I am sure at least some bullies are made through how they are/were treated as children in their homes. But are any born that way? Interesting idea. I feel like some people are born with personalities that make them very UNlikely to bully others. Maybe others are born to be prone to bullying?

    Are “bossy” kids more prone to bullying (maybe of the “mean girls” variety of bullying) if not given good guidance? It would be interesting if someone looked into the backgrounds of different kinds of bullies to see if there are patterns.

    I doubt people have to have intervention before the age of 2 to change. I think people can change at any age, it just gets harder the older they get.

  2. I never thought that a bully could be born that way. I think it has to be something in their environment and upbringing that either encourages them towards or teaches them that type of world outlook and behavior. I think that the idea that intervention has to happen before they are two, though, is pessimistic. I think some of what stops some people who have bullying tendencies to act upon them is the family, community, and society around them. It may not stop them entirely, but they would hesitate to go against what is acceptable. The problem comes in, I suppose, with that, when their environment encourages or accepts bullying on some level which seems, so often, to be the case.
    YES adults bully children, and I just hate that. I can’t understand that level of cruelty.

  3. I’ve had an opportunity to read this book pre-publication. It’s very well-written and full of important information and resources. Well done!!

  4. Sadly, bullying of gifted children by adults seems to be more common than not. Our son was the victim of intense bullying (and verbal and emotional abuse) by his teacher and all of the school staff he encountered while in first grade. We moved him to a new school for second grade (where he found mostly loving and compassionate staff), but the bullying continued by one teacher (not my son’s teacher) who had connections at the other school. But there have been other teachers in more recent days who have taken his constant corrections in stride and learned to roll with them. From this lesson, we have learned that teachers (like so many of us) can feel threatened by someone who is smarter than we are or knows more about our subject than we do.

    I’m excited about Pamela’s book because it is full of stories, of lessons learned, of timely research, and of helpful advice for parents. Can’t wait to have it on my bookshelf!

    • The traditional paradigm of education, where the teacher is the expert and authority figure and the students are seen in a passive role as learners that simply absorb the information from the teacher, lends itself to creating bullying by teachers.

      As Jade says, bullying fulfills a need for power. A teacher who sees himself primarily as the authority figure (person of power) in a classroom is going to feel his power threatened when a student (especially a young one) corrects his information. Correcting someone is an act of power. Acts of power are just not allowed to students in many classroom environments.

      Children are often seen in society as not fully human the way adults are. This is especially true in a classroom run by a teacher who sees herself primarily as the authority figure. A gifted student, who is inherently more intelligent than the teacher and who is even more learned in certain subjects, is a huge threat to that teacher’s sense of power in her classroom.

      It is not surprising to hear about teachers who bully gifted students to “keep them in their place” in the hierarchy of the classroom.

      There are also teachers who see learning as an activity that starts with and depends on the student. These teachers see themselves as mentors and facilitators that create an active learning environment. They share responsibility with the their students for learning and can be excited for their students who know more abut a topic than themselves.

      These are the teachers gifted students need. These are the teachers all students ought to have. But our society is committed to a paradigm where all students learn a “common” set of skills and knowledge at a “common” pace in a “common” method. This works against the “teacher as facilitator” methodology. So I suspect it will be harder and harder to find these gems the longer we stick to the “teach to the test” schooling that is taking over our country.

      Teachers are being stripped of power. And bullying is a way to grab power by people who feel they lack it.

  5. I feel slightly tense after reading this comment, and I trace it to the static nature of labeling somebody a bully, and a hopeless feeling from the writer. Bullying is a behavior, not an identity. To that end, sure, behavior is learned and not innate. I’m particularly excited to read what the book says about resilience, and I continue to study the role of healing work and restorative processes at creating transformation in individual lives and societal patterns.

      • Yes, I love this reframing. Maybe a better question is “Are some people born predisposed to bullying behavior, or is this behavior entirely based on their upbringing?”

  6. People who bully want to feel powerful. They have a need for power that is not being sufficiently met. How do we help meet needs for power? I think the answer starts in meeting needs for choice. Educate people that they have a choice in how they behave, and how they spend their time and many of them will find space in their hearts to treat each other with kindness.

  7. I think some children are born with personalities that lend themselves more easily to bullying. However, the home environment has a great deal to do with how those personalities come out. From my limited observations, a lot of bullying comes from insecurity. An insecure child can turn to bullying or do the exact opposite and become an introverted, shy child. I absolutely believe that both of these behaviors can be changed at any point (the younger the better).

  8. I personally think that anyone, in the right (or wrong) circumstances can become a bully, and though some of the things that push people to bully others may be innate, a lot of it can be situational. As Jade mentions, when there is a power imbalance, this sets up situations where bullying is more likely to occur. I also, sadly believe that the fewer consequences a person has to face because they bully, the easier it becomes to indulge their worst nature. In teacher/child relations there is usually a power imbalance and little that the child can immediately do in those situations. I don’t think this is a situation that can be easily fixed without reframing the role of a teacher and the classroom dynamic. If we foster an environment that sees children either in control or having a real stake in their own learning, and the teachers role as a mentor and facilitator, I think we are likely to see a decrease in the amount of this type of bullying.

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