The Connection Between Aggressiveness and Conformity to Society

This morning, I was at a social get together with a bunch of ladies from my community. We're a group of ex-pat Americans living in another country, so we identify with each other and have a lot of similar issues when it comes to raising our kids in the manner that we see best, with our values, especially when some of them counteract with the local society's values.

Today, the topic that we were discussing was aggression and bullying. While there is no shortage of amazing people living here, one of the biggest difference between Americans and the locals is that the local society is very aggressive. Not necessarily in a bad/mean way, they are just very strong individuals, very much into being "manly" and fighting to get what you want, and not letting people push you around. You need to be tough to live here and not get stepped on.

We moms were discussing how this results in being a decent amount of what we'd consider to be bullying in school. The parents were saying how they try to get the teachers to get involved to stop the aggression, but the teachers don't stop it- they just teach the one who is being pushed around to "fight back" and stand up for themselves. The Americans were saying that they don't want to teach their kids to shove back when pushed, scream back when screamt at, hit back when hit, etc... because that is "bad manners". But local society is very big into teaching kids to do exactly that, because otherwise you'll get taken advantage of. In short, they're aggressive, and think that teaching these skills at a young age will help them manage in the long run, help them out in life. And in many ways, they're right. People who are too soft spoken here do end up getting taken advantage of- you need to be tough here so that doesn't happen.

The conversation evolved and someone brought up an anti-bullying "thing" they were trying to implement in schools, which reminded me of something I had just learned about in a parenting class I'm taking, and made me think about why our local society is more aggressive.

Let me start at the beginning.

I have heard long ago about this man, Gordon Neufeld, a developmental psychologist who wrote a book called "Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers" , (I want to do a review on that book itself in another post, elaborate more than I am here) and he also has an institute which teaches courses on parenting, with parenting workshops, etc.

My friend Emily Milikow is teaching an online Neufeld based course, called "Making Sense of Aggression", which she offered to me to take for free, and I have really been enjoying it. It definitely does help me make sense of aggression, and even though I haven't finished the course, just based on Neufeld's book and what I've gotten from the course so far, I understand a bit more about what exactly it is about local society that makes aggression more prevalent here.

From what I've gotten from the course, aggression is the desire to attack, whether physically, verbally, or psychologically, and it includes the desire to attack yourself, and it also includes the desire to attack even it if wasn't carried out. The reason aggression happens is because of frustration that something isn't working "right", and the biggest source of frustration is actually because their "attachments" aren't working right. The most aggressive people are the ones who aren't getting the attachment they need.

People seem to think it isn't good to be "attached" to your parents, that you need to be "independent" and not "dependent on parents", that growing up means stopping to be so attached to your parents, and they often try to force their kids to grow up before they are emotionally ready to do so. Being reliant on parents is considered bad, immature behavior.
What people don't get (and I elaborated more on that here) is that if you push people to "grow up" and break their attachments with their parents before they are emotionally ready to do so, they don't become independent. No, they just transfer their attachments from their parents... to their peers. And instead of looking to their parents for the love, direction, and attachment they need, they try to get this from their peers instead, and become dependent on their peers for fulfillment.

What happens? In addition to you having "the blind leading the blind" (do you really want your 10 year old getting his moral direction from other 10 year olds?), you also have kids in desperate need of love and attachment, turning to other people in desperate need of love and attachment, everyone trying to get fulfilled emotionally from each other, and none actually managing to. Because peers can't replace parents in terms of love and attachment- they weren't built that way. And the relationship ends up being very un-fulfilling, with people constantly getting hurt because they aren't getting the love and approval every human being needs, because they are looking to the wrong people to get it.

(I am not saying the parents here don't love their kids. They absolutely, most certainly do love their kids. The problem is that when a kid is parent oriented, the love from their parent fulfills them. But if a kid is peer oriented, it doesn't matter how much their parent loves them, it won't fulfill their need to be loved by those they orient to- their peers.)

And when attachments aren't there, when kids are feeling very frustrated by the lack of attachments, they act out- they are aggressive.

So while we may try to fix bullying and other aggressive behavioral issues via disciplining and behavior modification programs, what we're doing is just putting a band-aid on the symptom (the aggression), instead of treating the actual problem- the frustration because of lack of fulfilling attachments.

Aggression and bullying are very common in Western society, no matter where you live, whether in US, Canada, England, Australia, etc... but it seems that my local culture has even more aggression than the US. (There's a saying that the local people here are like prickly pears- thorny and tough on the outside, but delicious and sweet on the inside. And it's definitely a good analogy.)
After taking the course, and today's discussion with the other moms, I realized why this probably happens.

Where I'm living, the culture here really places a huge importance on conformity to society. From 3 months of age, most kids are in (generally big) day care with other kids. I don't have personal experience with those day cares, but I've heard complaints (from American moms) that they are like factories, trying to make everyone the same in many ways- they eat the same thing, nap at the same time, do the same thing things, and the local parents here love it- because "structure is important", and it gets people fitting in to "society" already from a young age. Even parents who don't work often send their kids out to day care from when they are very young (I know very few people with kids older than 2, maximum 3, still at home), because "the kid needs to learn to fit in to society".

My first experience with this mentality of conformity, the desire for everyone to "be the same" was when I sent my kids to day camp last summer. For lunch every day, everyone brought in a sandwich and a fruit. Because of our gluten issues in our family, I sent my kids in with an alternative lunch. One day, after the teacher threw out Ike's lunch (because it "looked gross" in her opinion), I had a talk with her, and she got down to it and said that I shouldn't be sending the types of lunches I had been sending- I need to send sandwiches and a fruit, like everyone else. I told her that we don't eat gluten in our house, that Ike has a bad reaction to gluten, so that's why I don't send sandwiches... and she reiterated- "He needs to be like everyone else- send sandwiches that he can eat." Food allergies didn't make a difference to her- he needs to be like everyone else, even if that is very difficult to do. (I sent him to the school he is at now because the heads of the school have American mentalities, and they don't value conformity, and were totally ok with my sending him lunches that suited his dietary needs, among other things.)

The country I'm living in is a country made largely of immigrants, with so many people from so many different cultures and backgrounds, and there is a lot of pressure to become part of the local "melting pot", so that everyone becomes a "local" instead of the culture in which their parents and ancestors were raised.
Because of this, people aren't necessarily looking to their parents and ancestors for their values and direction- they look to their local peers. This is what Neufeld calls "peer orientation". And when they look for their peers for direction, they also look to them for love and acceptance, which, as I said above, they can't get from their peers, or at least not to the same extent as they would be able to get from their parents.
And because of that, there probably is an undercurrent of frustration because of unsatisfying attachments, which leads to the local society being more aggressive.

I'm not an expert, and obviously I can't say 100% that this is the cause. But from what I understood from what I read and the course I'm taking, I think, at the very least, there is a big connection between the push locally to "conform to society" and the fact that this is a more aggressive culture than how I was brought up in the US.

(P.S. As an aside, there is a large subset within the local culture here that, while there is definitely a push to conform to society, people look up to certain elders in the community for guidance and direction, and there is less aggressiveness there than in the broader society here, probably specifically for that reason- they aren't entirely peer oriented.)

After I told Emily about my writing this post, Emily said she'd offer a 10% discount to any of my readers who'd take her parenting course. It definitely is worth the money. And I don't say that lightly. Just mention that you found her through PennilessParenting to get the discount. (No, this is not a paid post, in case you were wondering. I am sharing this because it just hit me so strongly today. Not because of any financial incentive.)

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. This is such an interesting post! I'm fascinated by the whole topic. I'm curious if your husband was raised in the culture of the country where you live and if his approach (or take on it) is any different from yours, having been raised more American.

    1. Actually, interestingly enough, I am more like the local culture- I have a more aggressive type of personality. My husband, on the other hand, though he was raised here from age 6, is actually South African with a South African mentality, and is completely not aggressive because that is how he was raised- the average American seems aggressive compared to him, and the locals here on average are more aggressive than the average American. Because of that, it wasn't the easiest for him growing up here, because he didn't identify with the aggressive mentality here.

    2. As for me- my mom's family is from this country originally, and I was raised with the mentality of the locals here in many ways. So though I grew up in the US and my husband grew up here, I am much more similar to the locals than my husband.

      Glad you liked this post!

    3. It's a whole "nature vs. nurture" thing! So funny about the South African culture - we have some very good friends from South Africa and I would totally agree with your assessment. Thanks for the answer - keep these coming!

  2. what a fantastic coincidence - I just ordered this book a few days ago! loved the post!

    1. I hope you enjoy the book! But as my Neufeld parenting style friends have said- the book just barely scratches the surface of Neufeld's work, and the courses teach you much more and about subjects that the book doesnt cover.

  3. This is absolutely fascinating. It sounds like your new country is like America in the early 20th century, when immigrants from Eastern Europe were pouring in and there was a tremendous push to conform. (I read about a community play, where people "went into" a machine, dressed as they would in their home country, and came out dressed alike. Americans weren't above clubbing newcomers over the head with the message, I think.) That may be where our switch to peers rather than parents, started, etiquette books at the time emphasised how important it was to fit in.

    In your country, is the conformity thing typical of secular people? I'm wondering if religious communities there (like Pentecostals, Mormons or Orthodox Jews here) feel differently. We raised our daughter in a very traditional manner (for example, she stayed home till she married; it was the right choice for her, and if she'd been a different sort of person we might have done things differently) but the larger, secular society thought we were out of our minds and were going to do permanent damage by not letting her follow her peers' guidance. For a couple of atheists, we were way more comfortable hanging out with religious families. Similar values, in the end.

    Good luck! I'll have to take a look at the book, even though the kid's all grown up!

  4. Great post, I agree that it's important for kids to be healthily attached to parents, although not sure if lack of attachment is the reason for aggression.
    I'm curious what was the anti bullying "thing" you mentioned that they were trying to implement in schools?
    I think aggression has to do with the fact that we all have what's called an animal soul inside of us, and the animal soul does what animal do: it needs to assert control on it's "territory" and do away with competitors, so it's naturally aggressive to anyone it sees as a potential competitor. Of course some kids are more aggressive than others, and that may have to do with their individual hormones more than anything else. I think healthy parenting is important as much as parents can guide their kids to make moral choices and not follow their animal soul when it tells them to do immoral things, but aggression in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it can be a tremendously good thing when properly channeled and guided by parents/elders.

  5. Great article! That's true. Making a healthy relationship with your child will prevent those things.

  6. Thank you ! This post ils just son opening to me ! Adeline

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