The Cruelty of Shunning

In Complicity, Please an entire school treats Lucia as if she is invisible or worse. This is one example of shunning. However, it can be just as devastating if only one person does the shunning.

Early man used shunning as a social control. If you broke an important rule such as, “Do not steal,” the other members of your community would band together and treat you as if you did not exist. A commonly quoted phrase related to this is, “You are dead to me.” Shunning is used today by only a few groups, again as a social control.

A long-time friend tells me shunning has been used by several generations of her own family. One of her uncles did not speak to his brother for 20 years. His twin brother! He also enlisted their sister and  mother to join in the shunning. To this day, no one can explain why the brother did not speak to his twin for 20 years. When my friend went off to college, she was met at her dormitory by her shunned uncle and his daughter, relatives she had never heard much about and who she grew to love dearly. My friend has been shunned too. Her only sister has barely spoken to her for 25 years. I used to  wonder why she didn’t heal the relationship until my friend explained that shunning is a one-way street. The person who shuns has all the power. The person being shunned is completely powerless and feels invisible and helpless.

Being shunned makes my friend feel so angry she scares me sometimes.  It is humiliating to her. She began to wonder what was so wrong with her that her sister would not have anything to do with her. She worried that she must have a problem. She began to lose confidence in herself and believe the myth that there was a good reason for her to be shunned.

Shunning is never a good solution. If you want to solve a problem between you and your enemy, try communicating. If that doesn’t work, ask a trained counselor, therapist, or mediator to sit with you to ease the communication. If you want to cripple an enemy with cruelty, use shunning but — beware — it reflects badly back on the person doing the shunning.

Circle of Friends

Molly, the foster-mother, in Forty Wagging Tails in based on my mother-in-law. She raised two sons in the Bronx in New York City, and after her sons moved away and her husband retired, they moved to a large retirement community in South Florida with 24 of their best friends. By the time I met Molly, she had lost her husband and 18 of those friends, but she still had six old friends (and lots of new ones) she checked in with every day. A year after her death, only one of the original 24 friends remained, and he spoke fondly of the days he spent with his friends in the sun.

I never felt part of any group like that during my life until my elementary school had a reunion. There were about 50 kids in my class, and most of us started together in kindergarten and went all the way through eighth grade together. I lost track of all but a few, but my classmate Kay kept track of all of us. If someone moved, she tracked him down and gave him orders not to get lost again. When I lived in Australia, she made sure I kept in touch. It was from Kay’s list that we planned our reunion and more than 20 classmates attended.

It was at this reunion that I realized that kindergarten through eighth grade had really been a special time. Even though many of us had not seen each other for 50 years, when we came face-to-face, we knew each other at the most basic level.  We remembered the St. Bernard named Queenie who came to visit us on the playground, the smoke from the crematorium wafting over the school grounds, and the intense soccer games the girls played during lunch. Then there was the pickled brain that got tossed around like a softball, the windows we all broke with our balls, and the mystery panties someone had set out to dry on the radiator. Some of us had a tough time growing up in our families but almost everyone had been treated well at school.

I would like to retire to Florida with this bunch. Unfortunately, we are spread out from Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada down  a tiny town on the coast of the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. So here’s a piece of advice: If you go to school with some nice kids, appreciate them now and keep track of them so you can keep them in your life forever. Maybe you can retire to Florida with them.



Sources of Personal Power

In the middle-grade novel Power Play Mako sparks a school-wide effort to curb bullying. and in the process discovers how the quest to gain personal power is at the root of most bullying. The bully gains power by taking it away the person being bullied. This practice continues beyond school and into the workplace. Sometimes the bully is fully aware of what he or she is doing, but often it is an unconscious habit developed over a lifetime of bad behavior that is often rewarded by increasing influence, attention and even promotion. In the book, Mako develops a model that outlines several different paths to gaining power.

The two most common ways to gain power are positional or coersive. A boss is powerful because of his official position in an organization; he can require an employee to work every Saturday, even if the employee doesn’t want to, because a boss can fire a disobedient employee. An example of the coercive approach is the coworker who says she will make you look bad at work unless you do half of her work, in addition to your own.  Mako’s model suggests that people can also be powerful by being attractive and/or charming. These are the people who fascinate us with great stories or good looks or clever jokes. Power can also be gained from special knowledge or skills. The star basketball player is an obvious example but another is the girl who can make a purse and a prom dress from duct tape or the boy who can do complex mathematical equations in his head. If you are an electrical engineer who understands the behavior of electricity in a thunderstorm you will be sought out (and have tremendous power and influence) before and after big thunderstorms.

Here’s a summary of Mako’s model for the Sources of Personal Power in a school setting:

TYPE OF POWER                 HOW TO GET IT                              EXAMPLES

BOSSES From job, assignment, political office, or position School principal, student body president, School Board members, team captains for sports,
CHARMERS From appearance, personality, sense of humor, or ability to charm people Patty Jenkins (girl I have a crush on), Ms. Taylor, Homecoming Queen and King, that funny kid who sits behind me in History
STARS From knowledge, education, skill, or special abilities Mr. Wilkes (great history teacher who knows everything), star athletes, school chess champion, top cheerleaders
BULLDOZERS From ability to scare, punish, coerce or hurt others School bullies, one of the Vice Principals, Mom (sometimes), mean girls
ANGELS From empathy and consideration for others, good deeds, community service The nice girl, helpful teacher, Dr. Cassidy (who lectures us on self-esteem)


This was adapted from a model used in industrial psychology to explain to employees how others gain power. It has been widely used because adults are always seeking ways to increase their own power at work.