Payne turned out to be, above all else, and excellent story-teller. He had made a concerted study of coming-of-age rituals in various indigenous societies, and had come out of the experience inspired to bring a more enlightened understanding of childhood development, and especially managing conflict, to modern Western culture. He told several stories about those experiences, most of which were both funny and interesting. I don't think I'll do him just repeating them, though you could probably hear many of the stories in the books and CDs on his website. But I can at least give the high points of his talk, and the take-home message:
Payne found that all coming-of-age rituals throughout the world shared the same fundamental structure:
Seclusion. The child is isolated in some way from his family and his peers.
Endurance. The child has to endure through physical, mental, and emotional trials.
Liminality. The child arrives at a state of maximum tension, marked by intense confusion and the inversion of the normal order of things.
Change. The child undergoes a transformation, leaving behind childhood and moving into their identity as an adult.
Belonging. The new adult, no longer a child, is accepted into the community, with new adult responsibilities and privileges.
The process is shaped like an hour-glass, with the person "squeezed" through an intense experience in the middle (the "liminal" stage) and ultimately released again into greater freedom and autonomy. [My first thought, in seeing this map of coming-of-age rituals, was: "That's exactly the structure of all spiritual experience."]
Payne correlated this structure of coming-of-age rituals with what happens with bullying in the schools. The bullied student goes through a process of isolation and endurance, resulting in extreme disorientation, but ultimately (if things go well) changes and emerges into a new form of belonging to the community. It's not a perfect fit, as analogies go, and Payne didn't push it too far, though he did seem to have some conclusions about what it means for bullying:
The process of social growth inevitably involves struggle and conflict. He accused Western culture of having a "harmony addiction" – we feel a strong need for everyone to "get along" and for no one to have conflicts . . . which ultimately sabotages real growth. The goal of a society is not to eliminate conflict, but to properly manage conflict. As Payne says: "peace is not the absence of conflict but the beginning of it."
Because the process will involve struggle and conflict, our role as parents and community members is not necessarily to intervene, and especially not to blame, but mostly to be aware and present and manage the process. Or, as Payne put it, it's "an accompanied journey." He thinks any reaction to bullying should be moderate and common-sensical: "We're gonna talk about this, but we're not going to get weird about it." He put a lot of emphasis on seeing bullying as a process that involves both the bully and the bullied, and that it is not useful to make it a question of blame or victimhood. If parents avoid trying to assign blame, they are able to constructively communicate about issues and collectively arrive at good solutions, with everyone's input and collaboration: "It's nobody's fault, but everyone's responsibility."
The other big take-home message (and I'm not sure if this directly ties into the whole coming-of-age theme or not) was that bullying always starts small, primarily with verbal put-downs. Put-downs have become a staple form of entertainment in our society; for instance, every 18-minute episode of Friends was found to contain over 50 put-downs. Kids follow the example that parents and popular culture set; we are essentially teaching them that verbally abusing others is fun and acceptable. Eventually, put-downs become a compulsive, addictive behavior: criticism creates a temporary feeling of camaraderie, superiority, and power, but later leads to a sense of isolation, shame, guilt, and emptiness. Payne's first recommendation for schools is to teach students, teachers, and parents to become aware of gratuitous criticism in their own communication, and to challenge every occurrence of it. There is nothing profoundly new about such advice: Buddhism includes "right speech" in its prescriptions for moral behavior, and nearly everyone's mother said (if not practiced) "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." And yet, I know most people (adults and children alike) would find Payne's "blame, shame, and put-down diet" to be extremely challenging. If we're not complaining or criticizing someone or something, then what do we have to talk about?
If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend renting Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, a Bill Moyers special recorded shortly before Campbell's death. Campbell passionately discusses coming-of-age rituals across multiple cultures and concludes that our society is far worse off for having watered down such intense experiences to mere ceremonies. It's possible that much of modern bullying (along with juvenile delinquency, crime, etc) is a result of society taking away an outlet for the developing psyche that the initiation rituals once covered.
Regarding your earlier entry about your kids fighting, it made me chuckle because their experience sounds exactly like how my brothers and I behaved. As kids we were, more often than not, testing each others' limits, provoking each other to no end, and physically beating the crap out of each other. If it's any consolation, we all grew up to be reasonably well-adjusted, decent men (if I do say so myself), and now get along fantastically well.
Also, I think there's a big difference between most sibling rivalry and bullying outside the family. Both situations involve boys beating up other boys, but among normal brothers there are limits to what either brother will do to the other. I see the infighting as very natural--most baby animals will spar, within limits, with their litter-mates.