Saturday, 5 April 2008

Bullying: A Social Ill.

The Fword has an interesting article on how violence against women often begins in schools as a form of bullying, but, because it is seen as bullying, it is not treated as seriously as other forms of violence against women. I think this is a really important point, but I would like to broaden the discussion somewhat.

Just as the violence against women in schools is a reflection of our wider social values and attitudes towards women, so is bullying more generally in schools taught to children by us as adults. About a year ago, there was a poster in Partick underground station that proclaimed ‘Bullying is not a normal part of childhood’. The idea behind the campaign was to challenge the idea that bullying is not just a part of growing up, an experience to be lived through and moved past, but something that should be recognised and addressed. Yet, as soon as I read it, it struck me that bullying is a very normal part of childhood. The average child has almost no control over their lifestyle or life choices.

Take school for example. Children are forced to attend school, whether or not they want to go. When they act out in school, they are punished with writing exercises, the removal of privileges and exclusion. They are forced to wear a school-uniform and conform to a very strict code on suitable hairstyles and jewellery. Attendance at school is never discussed with children. We assume that they are too stupid or have no self-interest and so will make the wrong decisions. As a result, we force them to do things that they don’t understand and don’t have any desire to do, and when they refuse, we punish them. What is this, if not bullying? Multiply this over the course of a child’s life, where they are forced to eat foods they don’t like, wear outfits they don’t want to wear, attend functions they don’t want to attend, and is it any wonder that they learn that punishing people who don’t conform or make you uncomfortable is acceptable.

If we want to stop bullying, we need to stop bullying children. This is not to say that children are allowed free reign. Children are often not mature enough to make the right decision on their own. Instead, we should be talking to our children more. We should explain why something is in their interest and discuss why they feel the way they do. We should teach them that adults are not there to fulfil their every need and demand, but are other human beings who deserve respect and kindness. An argument over refusal to eat dinner would change from the authoritarian adult insisting a child eats something they dislike, to a discussion about why they don’t like it. It should involve a discussion of the feelings of the adult who made that meal and why they would be hurt if a child is just being selfish. It should involve children in the process of making meals so that they have more choice over what they eat, but also learn to respect other people’s choices and that sometimes compromise is necessary.

Similarly, the importance of attending school should be explained to children. The role it played in their parent’s lives should be openly discussed. They should see the benefits and failings of schooling. They should also be made aware that school attendance is compulsory and obeying the law is a necessary part of operating in society. Schools also need to negotiate more with their students. The need for rules and discipline within a school environment should be freely discussed and explained. They should not appear arbitrary. Children should be allowed to feel as they played a part in making the rules that they must adhere to. Schools must also seriously reflect on why they have the rules they do and whether, for example, a strict hairstyle policy has any actual social benefit? They should stop seeing children as things that need to be controlled and as people who should be treated with respect.

I understand that this may be seen as naive, but schools where children voted to bring in school uniforms see a much higher uptake of uniforms and less contention over whether they should be worn. My husband, who is a teacher, allows the children to decide all the rules for behaviour within his class and what the punishments should be. He says that with a little guidance (such as highlighting particular scenarios) they come up with all the rules that he wants and that they often want harsher punishments that he would require. He says that behaviour improves dramatically as a result, and that when children break the rules, as inevitably happens, they take their punishment without complaint. Making children part of the process of discipline helps them set their own boundaries, which is integral to making them independent and responsible adults.

As a society, we have a tendency to view children as dangerous and transgressive. We don’t have strategies for integrating them and, when viewing them as a group, such as hanging around street corners, our first response is to punish them, not engage with them. We create our children. If they bully each other or behave in an anti-social manner, they are simply responding to what they have learned. If we want bullying to stop being a normal part of childhood, the buck stops with us.

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