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Book of the week

BEST FRIENDS, WORST ENEMIES: children's friendships, popularity and social cruelty. By Michael Thompson and Catherine O'Neill Grace. Michael Joseph pound;10.99

The actor Robert Morley once wrote that any adult claiming that their happiest days had been spent at school was either a liar or a bully. This is not quite fair; popular children, who are often quite nice to everyone else, can, indeed, have a very pleasant time. But they only make up about 60 per cent of the school population. After that, there are around 20 per cent of pupils who are neither particularly popular nor unpopular, about 5 per cent of neglected pupils, who may have just one friend, and around 15 per cent who are lonely and, at worst, suffer persecution.

These categories are not necessarily constant: popular children can go through stages of unpopularity, and previously unpopular children can sometimes come into their own during adolescence. But while school can be a miserable place most of the time for a minority of children, there is often little attempt at any organised level to make things better for them.

Teachers often see that something is going wrong but have no idea what to do about it other than vague classroom exhortation, given that any active interference in what goes on in the social life of the school always carries the risk of making a victim's situation worse.

The authors of this latest study of friendship, first published in the United States, admit that there are no obvious answers. Even so, some of the strategies suggested in the latter parts of the book are well worth considering, particularly those that involve all pupils in trying to create an atmosphere of social inclusion.

Those difficult pupils who seem to have created their own misfortunes should, the authors suggest, be directed towards social skills training programmes run by school counsellors. While such facilities are common in many US schools, they are rarely available in British schools, or elsewhere in the community, for children sometimes desperately in need of help.

The authors explain the occasional acts of social cruelty that are such a feature of childhood largely in terms of human biology and evolution. But while other higher mammals regularly side against individual members of a social group for a variety of reasons, human societies have always been influenced by the existence of a particular culture which may be more or less tolerant towards others who are different.

Our own culture often seems to favour put-downs, verbal or otherwise, as a main source of humour, particularly on television. Intense parental competition about pupils' performances at junior sports may be another way in which children are given the wrong message about how best to co-exist with others.

A school can become a happier place only if all the adults connected with it, as well as the pupils, examine their scales of values at the same time. For some schools, any new initiatives may seem too much to take on when there are already so many demands to be met. But establishing a better working atmosphere for all can save time and effort.

Bullying is not simply an aggressive act against certain individuals; it can also act as a corrosive force against spontaneity and creativity. At the least, schools should try to know what else is actually going on outside and inside the classroom, and this book suggests a number of ways of finding out in an open rather than an intrusive way.

After that, there are enough accounts in these pages of how relationships between pupils can improve to give grounds for the type of cautious hope always possible while children are still young enough to change their behaviour radically from one day to the next.


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