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with Steven Parker, MD

This blog is now retired. Dr. P passed away on Monday, April 13, 2009. The WebMD Community will dearly miss his kind, caring, and often humorous manner.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cruel Kids and Tribalism

I just read of a newspaper story (which I’ll discuss below) which triggered two related memories from my childhood.

Memory #1: I grew up in a nice middle class neighborhood in Detroit, with cozy houses, fenced in backyards, and close neighbors. I rode my bike all around the area with freedom and had a gaggle of kids to play with. Except Billie Wiggins, with whom I never associated. He lived about five houses away, but it might as well have been on the moon. Billie talked funny, said incomprehensible things, acted eccentrically, even looked bizarre in an ill-defined, clumsy, overweight way. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure he was moderately autistic, but at the time “weirdo” was as far as I got.

Memory #2: In my elementary school, Fred had a huge, oddly shaped head. He walked with a tentative, shuffling gait and looked so fragile I thought he could break at any second. Worse, once he had a two minute seizure in my 3rd grade class, which terrified me and everyone else, although we never discussed it. When he walked by, some of my friends would taunt him: “Here comes Fred with the light bulb head.” Needless to say, Fred was no pal of mine. Even being seen talking to him was inconceivable. He was not my kind and I didn’t want anyone to think he was.


In my defense, I wasn’t overtly mean to Billie or to Fred. But – to my eternal shame – neither was I at all friendly. Never did I tell my friends to cool it with the cruel taunts. Never did I attempt to get to know either of them. Never did I empathize with the hell they were going through.

I was, after all, a kid and – let’s be clear-eyed about this – kids can be incredibly cruel. Differences in others are inherently threatening, mandating excommunication from the tribe of peers, to be avoided at all costs, lest you too be perceived as weird and banished. It is such peer culture (not peer pressure) that rules the world.

But, I wonder now, where were the adults? Why didn’t my parents talk to me about Billie and force me to go visit with him and his parents to dispel my fears and fantasies? Why didn’t my teachers inform us about the nature of Fred’s seizure and disability, and put an end to our cruel taunts?


These two childhood memories came to mind as I read of an incident in a school in Florida. Seems that a teacher organized a vote by the 5 year olds in her kindergarten class on whether to expel a child who was a pain in the butt and frankly weird. (You can read the whole sorry story here.)

Big surprise, the class voted 14-2 to kick the kid out. Aside from how breathtakingly cruel and boneheaded it was to give 5 year olds the right to vote (hey, why not let 5 year olds vote on what kind of meals they want, on what their bedtime should be, on whether their little sisters should be sent to prison), the teacher gave voice to and supported the children’s meaner prejudices, and allowed them to rule the day.


To be sure, we all have within us the capacity for such cruelty. But so too do we all have nobler instincts, like generosity and empathy. Which of these warring instincts will develop and flourish as we mature has everything to do with the adults and teachers in our lives.

If you encourage me to despise the Billies and the Freds of the world, if you teach me that all such others belong to another species altogether and are therefore deserving of only our contempt, then that early human instinct for hating those outside our group enlarges and fuels the horrific headlines which we read every day, in which humans are not murdered, but cleansed from the earth, like a lowly germ.

In my view, tribalism is a great scourge. The problem is not so much that we identify with and adhere to groups with similar interests or beliefs (I, for one, am currently a member of the Detroit Pistons’ tribe), it’s that those who are not in our affiliative group are accorded sub-human status and, as such, are fair game to exploit, to taunt, to banish, to diminish, to cleanse.

In our shrinking global village, we see the destructive effects of tribalism all around us and can ill afford not to treat all humans as members of our same tribe, worthy of our respect and consideration. If we are to transcend our baser instincts, that lesson needs to start early and often, taught by parents and teachers, taught by you and me.

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Posted by: Steven Parker MD at 12:44 pm


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