“You know why kids bully? Because adults bully. But no one wants to have that conversation.”  — Lauryn Mummah McGaster

I saw this pass-along on Facebook the other day and decided that I did want to have the conversation. When we think about bullies, we usually think about kids bullying other kids—classically, stealing their lunch money or more recently, tormenting them for being perceived as different.

And what do we say when that happens? Kids can be mean. Kids can be cruel. Kids have no respect. In other words, the problem arises in the kids themselves. They shape the victimization of others, presumably out of thin air.

But let’s stop a minute. We know that kids learn what they see adults do. They learn to talk and walk. They learn to swear and belittle. The walking and talking may be hardwired into humans, but the rest is clearly learning by imitation.

But adults aren’t bullies, really. They don’t go around stealing lunch money and certainly not in front of their kids.

You might be surprised, but adult bullying happens a lot at work. Belittling and humiliation seem to go with business just as much as board meetings and yearly reviews. Not all workplaces are toxic, of course, but almost every one contains a group of gossips or a clique that excludes others just like children do in the cafeteria. They yell at underlings. They sexually harass others. They steal credit for others’ accomplishments and boast about it.

But wait, you say, children seldom if ever come to where their parents work and see them behave this way. How can they be learning to bully from them?

Bullying behavior starts with an attitude, a sentiment that there are winners and losers in life and the winners have the right (or even the duty) to lord it over the losers. Think about how many people were influenced by the “looking out for #1” philosophy.

Adults carry these attitudes home with them. Children pick up on them. Think about what adults do and say in front of their kids, even—or maybe especially—when they don’t know the kids are within earshot. They bitch about their neighbors and their bosses. They use words like “bitch” and “bastard” and worse. They talk about their day and how “stupid” some co-worker was or how they “felt like smacking” the customer service representative.

And think about what adults say when their children are being bullied. Often the response is, “If he hits you, hit him right back. Show him you’re the boss.” This perpetuates the “winners and losers” scenario and sometimes leaves the “loser” with a desire to victimize someone even “lesser.”

Worst of all, think about how often adults bully children. There are too many children who are badly abused, hit and kicked and belittled by their parents. These cases sometimes get reported to Children’s Services.

Those are the extreme cases, however. Seldom does a single slap or two get reported. Telling a child that he or she is “no good” or “stupid” or even “a big disappointment” never gets reported at all. Some adults use humiliation, name-calling, and fear, all in the name of discipline and good behavior. Some pit one child against another, praising the “good” child and condemning the other. Some blame and shame ruthlessly.

They may think they are raising obedient children, but they are showing them through actions, words, and even tone of voice what it is to be a bully or a victim and how often bullying succeeds. The essence of bullying is that one person has actual or perceived power over another and uses that power in toxic ways. Think about how much power adults have over children and how seldom they consider how to use that power wisely.

This is certainly not to say that all adults abuse their power or their children. But when you look at children’s behavior, it’s hard not to see a reflection of the environment in which they were raised.

Bullies don’t just happen. They learn.