Education: Personally Speaking: Children squabble: it's a fact of life, not always a case for the helpline
Thursday 16 October 1997
Yet these look-outs are based on definitions of bullying that are very vague. Childline defines it as: "physical aggression - hitting, kicking, taking or damaging belongings. It can be verbal - involving name-calling, nasty teasing or spreading rumours. It can also be indirect - for example when someone is deliberately left out or ignored. Sometimes the bullying can take very subtle forms, such as a nasty look".
This definition trivialises serious assault by conflating it with name- calling. But apart from relativising aggression, surely a lot of this behaviour is harmless and common to all children? Kicking, pushing as well as teasing, secluding and ostracising each other is normal practice. I certainly hit, sent to Coventry, and scarred the face of my best friend. We fought less as we grew up and we still keep in touch. Children do not automatically know how to behave as a friend, they need to learn. The best way of doing so is through experience, by trying and testing the parameters of personal relationships.
Adults cannot teach this. It can hurt terribly as children turn on each other frequently. But their emotions at this age are undisciplined and part of growing up means learning to control them.
Guidelines such as those issued by the Department for Education and Employment instruct schools to assess the amount of bullying and increase awareness of it. This involves questionnaires, talks, discussion and interviews. (Questionnaires that have published their results demonstrate that most so-called bullying is teasing and name-calling.) Once the level is assessed popular advice recommends that this is followed up by quality circles and children's councils, where children are told how to discuss problems and run their own mini trials. In schools, all relationships between peers are monitored. Talk to any child about "their definition" of bullying and they will chant back in parrot fashion; "...physical, verbal or emotional abuse, what matters is how you feel". Children are full of this rhetoric, they get it every where - at school, on tea-time television, in magazines and at the local swimming pool. Even board games are dedicated to it.
Children often give the right answers and carry on anyway in their own time, squabbling. Despite this, I am seriously worried about the consequences of the sentiments, the intervention of these ideas and the scrutiny of all their relationships. I think it is time to ask whether this intensive onslaught of scare stories and advice is necessary and in particular, it is time to reflect on what we are teaching our children through these policies.
Children are given a message that they are constantly prone to abuse from everyone. It cannot be wise to tell children to scrutinise each other for nasty behaviour every minute of the day; it can breed suspicion.
Through these good intentions to prevent disputes, children do not get a chance to run their own relationships. They have no time without adults prying into their affairs. This can only shelter them and stultify their understanding about relationships. An adult can set an example but should not always be in the way. Not only does "behaviour management" foster mistrust and prevent children from exploring their own parameters of relationships, it does not allow them to sort their own problems out. Instead they learn that an adult will do that for them.
If a child is distraught, this does not mean we should stop everything to organise and sanitise their lives for them. Sometimes they need to learn to do it themselves, otherwise they may turn to us too much. We could be breeding a passive generation that turns away from their problems to the third party to resolve. I think we need to ignore some of their squabbles and allow our children the freedom to make mistakes, get in trouble and to grow up.
The writer is a researcher in child development.
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