The Observer:

In a book to be published tomorrow, Tim Gill, a former government adviser who led a major review into children’s play, argues that mollycoddling children by labelling ‘unpleasant behaviour’ as bullying is stopping them from building the skills they need to protect themselves. ‘I have spoken to teachers and educational psychologists who say that parents and children are labelling as bullying what are actually minor fallings-out,’ said Gill, the former director of the then Children’s Play Council, who is currently advising the Conservative Party’s childhood review.

‘Children are not always nice to each other, but people are not always nice to each other. The world is not like that. One of the things in danger of being lost is children spending time with other children out of sight of adults; growing a sense of consequence for their actions without someone leaping in,’ he told The Observer

Gill related an incident in which his own daughter complained that she was being bullied after three boys teased her about a game she was playing in the park. ‘What struck me was the use of the word bullying to describe that,’ he said. ‘Bullying is where the victimisation is sustained and there is a power imbalance. I do not mean we should allow unbridled cruelty, just that one option is asking, “Can you sort it out yourself?” ‘

I think a lot of what Gill has to say makes a lot of sense, but no one is going to tell me that bullying among kids is too aggressively monitored. One of the scariest things about middle school was the knowledge that the school did not have our back. That meant that even verbal taunting was not a threat free of the fear of physical harm. It informed Bob Vis’s libertarian views by giving him a distrust for institutions and it lead me to help people to cheat to barter for my protection. Energy that should have been devoted to learning and productive socializing was instead spent in crisis management making sure that people would not take my stuff or physically assault me. And these were not “lessons in life” that would help me later on because they were problems particular to the situation. They likely hurt my social development more than helped it. Same with Bob.

The notion that kids can “sort it out amongst themselves” assumes two individuals that want to sort it out. A majority of the time this really is not the case. The taunting and harassment is not means to an end… it is the end in itself. Or in the alternative it is the means to dominance, which really can’t be accomplished any other way.

I don’t know if bullying is worse now than it was 30 years ago or better. On one hand, there was the decision made in education circles to start deciding that bullies are misunderstood rather than thugs so they should be spared the rod and there is a general aversion to punishment (and the lawsuits that sometimes follow). On the other hand, there are institutional improvements such as alternative schools, the “boys will be boys” mentality has been replaced, drugs are sometimes used to sedate bullies, and I think that ever since Columbine there has been an effort to taking bullying more seriously.

So I don’t know whether things are better or worse than they used to be and how things rated when I was going to school. I also don’t have any clear answers as to what administrators ought to do. But Gill seems to yearn for the day when kids learned to suck it up and be tough and that is a dangerous attitude. That which does not kill you will sometimes will leave you weaker rather than stronger for it. Kids need to spend more time in school learning and less time dodging their classmates.

Category: School

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2 Responses to Is Bullying Blown Out of Proportion?

  1. Webmaster says:

    I find the article writer to be “full of crap.”

    Of course, in my middle school, we had a vice principal (it’s never the principal who’s the “enforcer”, always the vp) who believed “there’s no such thing as a bully, kids who ‘act out’ just need to be understood.”

    He instituted one of the stupidest rules I’ve ever seen: that if there were a fight, since there’s “no such thing as a bully”, that regardless of circumstance both parties were obviously equally to blame. The secondary rule was that teachers were merely given the option of allowing kids who were stuck into “inschool suspension” to have their homework and take the tests they were supposed to be in classes to take.

    Most teachers, following the VP’s lead, refused to let “trouble kids” catch up.

    The end result? The big, burly morons who didn’t give a crap about their grades had the last laugh. If they picked up a 75-lb kid and shoved him into a locker, both kids got a 3-day suspension, even though the smaller kid hadn’t done a damn thing. Meanwhile, the grades of the smaller kid (who likely actually cared about the grades he was making, or at least his parents probably did) suffered.

  2. trumwill says:

    The rule at my school was that both would be equally punished in the case of a fight, but both of you had to be fighting. In other words, if you got slammed into a locker you would be okay, but if you took a swing after being slammed into the locker you were in trouble, too.

    In one way that empowered the bully because you basically had to stand there and take it or run away. It nullified the notion of “if you fight back they will respect you” that my parents generation was taught. It also lead to cases wherein the instigator would lie and say that it was a two-way fight when it wasn’t, though on the whole I think that administrators did a decent job of sorting that out as long as there were witnesses. If there weren’t witnesses, though, and there usually weren’t (willing to come forward, anyway), the bully would simply deny that it was him that did it in which case there wasn’t much the administrators could do.

    There was an upshot to the policy: it prevented fights and it prevented escalation. Since I was a big kid, I was a pretty big target for a lot of little Napoleons that wanted to prove that they weren’t scared of bigger people. By sheer size alone there are a couple that I could have taken pretty easily. They’d try to provoke me by namecalling or pushing. Because of the rules in place, though, I never took the bait. Had the fighting policies not been in place, I probably would have (I almost did anyway). So in that sense the policy worked in reducing violence.

    Ultimately, though, the policy was more than a little aggravating. The thing about giving both kids In-School Suspension and whatnot is that often only one of the two participants care that they’re in trouble. Those of us with a future that we didn’t want to screw up were then left the burden of avoiding the fights simply because we didn’t want to get in trouble. To the extent that it may have been effective in deterring violence, it was pretty murky morally in that it empowered the wrong people (those that didn’t care about rules and getting in trouble) and burdened the wrong people (those that simply wanted to go to school and learn).

    I have absolutely no experiences, first-hand or second-hand, of where teachers and administrators were too diligent in deterring bullying as Gill implies. On the other hand, perhaps he would read what we’re saying and say “Well that’s what I meant, schools aren’t letting kids fight back and sort it out amongst themselves!” He might have a point, but most bullied people didn’t have the size advantage that I did and even if they did fight back, they’d lose. Badly.

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