Lessons in niceness have never been so needed

Children should learn that acquiring respect for the feelings of others is not for losers
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The Independent Online

What on earth can be happening? As if by magic, our rulers and would-be rulers have suddenly discovered some simple, but rather wonderful, new gifts that they would like to offer us. Niceness is one, happiness another. As for love, not even politicians can guarantee that, although we can depend on their personal deep affection for us all - at least over the next few weeks. The unofficial Valentine's Day that they favour would seem to be 5 May.

What on earth can be happening? As if by magic, our rulers and would-be rulers have suddenly discovered some simple, but rather wonderful, new gifts that they would like to offer us. Niceness is one, happiness another. As for love, not even politicians can guarantee that, although we can depend on their personal deep affection for us all - at least over the next few weeks. The unofficial Valentine's Day that they favour would seem to be 5 May.

It will fade, of course. They will have their brisk electoral way with us and then, after a few weeks of afterglow, the old routine of nag, niggle and neglect will set in.

But for the moment, romance is in the air and, while we are being courted, we should perhaps grab whatever niceness and happiness that are on offer. Particularly welcome is a pilot scheme, being tried out on a small number of primary schools, in which children are being gently introduced to the idea of being nice to one another.

Pioneered by the Department for Education, the £10m plan is designed to improve behaviour at secondary schools by the inculcation at an earlier stage of basic standards of kindness and thoughtfulness. Normally, parents would be expected to deal with such matters but, more and more often, they appear to have decided they have better things to do. It is up to teachers to take up the moral slack.

As an experiment, it might have been designed to enrage the usual clack of traditionalists. The niceness classes will include "What am I feeling?" quizzes. Children will draw emotional barometers, on which the strength of their feelings will be rated. There will be discussions about anger and respect towards others. A "good friend wall", in which every brick contains a description of some friendly quality, will be built. Cuddly toys will be passed around for classroom stroking, so that the advantages of giving praise and compliments can be explored.

Bang on cue, the usual naysayers have spoken up against niceness lessons. "Yet again, this is the nanny state attempting to take away the responsibilities of parents," intoned Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. Michael Howard has railed once more against the "tide of political correctness", the "fashionable views" which have militated against the teaching of traditional subjects.

Of course, not all lessons in social behaviour are regarded as unacceptable. If the scheme was designed to introduce other types of civic virtue - discipline, for example, or respect for adults - it would be welcomed as a sound and sensible return to traditional standards. But because it touches on matters of emotion and kindness, always suspect to educational conservatives, it is dismissed as the work of meddlesome do-gooders.

The fact is, lessons in niceness have never been needed more urgently. We are not a particularly kind or generous nation at the moment. We watch demeaning reality shows and have a vindictive popular press. We drink and fight and gamble. We riot for furniture at Ikea. We congratulate ourselves on our big-heartedness at the time of a high-profile disaster or during Red Nose week, but when real generosity of spirit is required - towards frightened and brutalised asylum-seekers, for example - our emotional barometer remains at freezing point.

The most depressing aspect of the recent BBC documentary about the treatment of immigrants at Heathrow and detention centres was not that the cruelty and racism was unusual, but that it was typical. The bullying guards were, in many ways, your average Englishmen, products of an aggressive, competitive society.

Such behaviour is a symptom of personal discontent. In his new book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Professor Richard Layard argues that, in spite of relatively high levels of wealth, Britons are more ill at ease with themselves than they were 20 or 30 years ago. "Our fundamental problem today is a lack of common feeling between people - the notion that life is essentially a competitive struggle." An unashamed nanny-statist, Layard believes that the state should lead, not follow, the individual. Emotional intelligence should be taught in school. Children should learn that acquiring an understanding of one's own feelings, and respect for those of others, is not necessarily for losers, that it can bring its own rewards.

The saintly, much-maligned teachers who attempt to convey this fairly obvious message through emotion quizzes and good friend walls are hardly helped by the way that the adult world behaves. The media, celebrities, sports stars and politicians offer, day after day, a wild and dissolute celebration of individuality and competitiveness. Interviews with this or that actor may touch on matters of emotion, but the focus is invariably inwards, towards the self. It is said that the Government has been listening to people like Professor Layard and that some kind of wellbeing index may soon be introduced to departmental reports and White Papers. Competitiveness and aggression will be tempered by a new spirit of niceness, they say. Yes, an election is definitely on the way.

terblacker@aol.com

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