My colleagues, Kevin Honeycutt and Tamara Konrade and I have been considering an unusual connection: chickens and bullying. And more specifically, how to learn lessons from chickens, their farmers in order to stop bullies from being bullies to begin with. I’m excited about the topic and hope you’ll be intrigued enough to truly consider the connection as well.
The natural state:
When chickens are first hatched (born), their natural state is to want to be with their families. To be with other chickens. Like all birds, they like to flock and they do this instinctually, as protection. Brain researchers would call this instinctual social behavior a Fixed Action Pattern. Something that is hardwired into the chicken’s brain as a source of survival. The natural state of chickens is to be able to get along in a group which better ensures the survival of all. They have ways to warn each other of impending outside danger and they have ways to keep that social order intact to keep the flock safety as a top priority.
But brain researcher, Rodolfo Llinas with any Fixed Action Pattern of the brain, chickens can develop new ones. If their natural state is to be social, what happens when we put undo stress upon the flock, such as crowding them up into huge crowds on a farm, or into a small pen? In these stressful conditions, their natural social order gets pushed into hyper-need. It’s no longer about the safety of the flock, but about the identity and safety of the individual. And in order to even survive, they have to be the ‘top bird’ and they begin to push down the weak, the sick, the different. And how they do that is by pecking. And make no mistake. This is life or death in their brains. So they peck hard. And they might draw blood. And when that happens, other chickens, who might not have previously seen that particular chicken as weak, now see that blood and they begin to peck too. And the blood spots grow. And eventually, without intervention, they will peck that chicken to death. They see it as a matter of survival, whether or not that’s actually true.
And farmers have been dealing with this mostly in the larger factory-farms, starting in the early 20th Century: how to keep production high, how to guarantee that the dollars invested into the product are efficiently used, and how to minimize the loss of stock. Because every chicken lost is money out of their pockets in terms of lost production and it becomes an effort to toss the bodies away.
So what have they done to protect their investments? To keep their chickens from pecking each other to death? Several things. Some have isolated the chickens into individual cages. In that way, they are not able to attack one another. And the farmers stack the cages high and in close proximity, trying to emulate at least a piece of the flocking instinct. But what happens is that the lower chickens get pelted and covered in the droppings of the chickens above, opening them up to all sorts of problems. And also the attempt to recreate the natural flocking patterns just really isn’t successful at all.
But there were some clever farmers in the early 1900’s who found that if they were to mask the color of blood on the chicken’s feathers by having the chickens wear rose-colored glasses that the losses were significantly reduced. See, by wearing the red glasses, the chickens couldn’t see the blood on the others’ feathers and the deadly pecking just didn’t happen.
So I found out about chicken glasses watching an episode of Storage Wars where one of the characters, Barry Weiss, found a pair of them. I was talking with Kevin Honeycutt about the episode, and he immediately made the full connection from chicken pecking to our children and our bullying issues. What if we were to find our own glasses we could put on so that we’d not automatically see perceived weakness in others and feel the need in our crowded lives, to peck on one another? What would that be like for kids? For adults?
Because the reality is that bullying isn’t just for bullies. We all do it. Colleagues, teachers, students, everyone. We’ve all been participants in one way or another and I’ll bet we’ve been participants more recently than we might like to think. Because bullying isn’t just about pushing a kid around for his lunch money.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt insecure, and so before you got attacked, you attacked first? Maybe it was with a sarcastic comment? Or a “kidding joke” which might not, at it’s root, have been a joke at all?
See, anyone, in the right situation, can be a bully.
Because “bully” is a actually behavior; it’s not a person we are attacking.
We believe that bullying at any age can take on 4 different forms:
• Verbal — saying hurtful things to or about someone.
• Physical — pushing, pulling, touching, or any unwanted contact, painful or not.
• Social — excluding or otherwise hurting someone using others. Social aggression is still aggression.
• Digital — online or other digital aspects of hurtful or harmful behaviors.
The reality is that bullying is pushing another down in order to get a leg up yourself. It’s stealing from someone else’s social capital to reinforce your own. Both children and adults do this more often than we might care to admit.
There are some terrific and high-quality anti-bullying curricula out there. These folks do a wonderful job helping to bolster those who are or who might be bullied. The teach how to stand up to bullies; how to support friends and family who are being bullied.
So what’s different about our Chicken Glasses Anti-Bullying curriculum?
We want to help people learn how not to be bullies in the first place. To see what makes us vulnerable to that sort of behavior. To learn how to put on our own rose-colored glasses for the protection of ourselves and others.
If you’re interested in a pro-active response to bullying at your school or workplace, please do let us know. We’d love to come walk your staff through the types of bullying and help you establish the steps toward an environment that promotes a stronger flock.
Because our hopes and dreams are that we all become aware of the bullying actions in which we’ve all participated.
And that is the first step toward healing.