Lessons learnt from latter-day freak shows

Richard Wharton

Walking through the playground earlier this week, I overheard a snippet of conversation from a group of Year 5s standing around our new "buddy bench" - the playground seat for children feeling lonely.

"I'm sorry, Adam, but that was pathetic. You haven't got what it takes and frankly you're an embarrassment."

I turned on my heels and proceeded to chastise: "That's not a very nice way to speak to people, Amy. If Adam has come to sit on the buddy bench, that means he'd like someone to be kind to him, not ... ".

"Oh it's alright, Mr Wharton," interrupted Adam, "we were just playing The X Factor."

"You just don't get it, Dad," my children informed me later that evening when I recounted the above events. And they are quite right of course; I frequently find myself bemused by popular culture. What I find insidious, though, is the way in which delighting in the behaviour of bullies appears to have become an all-pervasive form of mass entertainment. A casual flick through the channels on any given evening will offer an assortment of opportunities to observe the vulnerable being belittled: cantankerous chefs ranting at underlings; insolent impresarios crushing the desperate; belligerent businessmen deriding the hopeful.

Perhaps I've got it all wrong. Perhaps when we lock up a group of people in a house and poke them with metaphorical sticks in order to try to get them to bully each other, we are just watching "cartoon" bullying and are not really revelling in the base behaviour of others. But I think not; I think that when children watch such programmes - and I am in a position to put you out of any doubt that young children frequently do - they are becoming inured to the suffering of others.

What puzzles me is just how all of this fits with the ever greater onus on schools to eradicate bullying. If such behaviour is to be admired, perhaps we should be exposing children to increased levels of it so they can pack in as much "experiential learning" on the subject as possible. Clearly, it will benefit them to either become more adept at it or develop better coping mechanisms: "Adam, your story was crap and, frankly, if I don't see better from you by next week then you're out"; "Amy, your dance was laughable. Frankly, I was embarrassed to watch it.'

"He's getting silly now," I sense you thinking. But if I am pushing the point beyond its logical conclusion for effect, what effect am I having? If it would be unconscionable for a teacher to speak like this to children, shouldn't it also be unacceptable for them to mimic such behaviour as play? Aren't all children's role play games about modelling themselves on the behaviour of those they admire? Is crushing the dreams of others for the entertainment of onlookers something that we want children to admire? Should I have told Amy that The X Factor was "not a nice game"?

I didn't, since you ask. Better, I think, to foster evaluative minds than decry what others value (especially where Amy's mum is concerned). However, I profoundly hope that there will come a time when our children's children will look back at much of what currently passes for entertainment and inwardly wince in much the same way that we do at the idea of Victorian freak shows. If such a time should come sooner, so much the better.

Richard Wharton, Headteacher of Wellstead Primary School, Southampton.

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Richard Wharton

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