It's the cotton wool that wrecks lives

10th September 2004 at 01:00
When the anti-bullying circus comes to town, we all seem to stop thinking, says Simon Knight

As a child, I was bullied at school. Growing up in Scotland and England and, for whatever reason, being considered alien in both, I was on the receiving end of some fairly unsavoury behaviour from my peers. But please don't feel sorry for me. I mention it only to establish my credentials. Shared suffering seems to be as important as considered opinion when trying to establish one's legitimacy to comment on a subject today.

Like Spartacus's followers, lending their support and demonstrating their solidarity, "I was bullied too" is the refrain.

Hang on, though. Periodically, I was also a bully. On the school cruise ship SS Uganda, sailing around Scandinavia, a group of 11-year-old friends and I made life a misery for one particular boy. Now where does this leave me? Can I still count on you, the reader, to indulge my perspective?

Perspective is perhaps the central problem for the discussion around the current obsession with bullying. Adults seem to have lost theirs, while that of children has been elevated and indulged far too much. Whether it is physical or emotional, bullying undermines a child's place in the world and leaves them feeling insecure. This is hardly an ideal basis on which to study and pursue successful learning. But as with all new or difficult experiences, isn't it the response from the individual that is key to how they emerge?

Esther Rantzen, chair of Childline, says that "bullying wrecks lives". This implies that the damage bullying causes is somehow permanent and irreparable. Childline has just launched a new fundraising initiative, the Childline Foundation. It is headed by Dianne Thompson - and, yes, the press release duly informs us that she experienced bullying herself. Ms Thompson seems to have bounced back quite well from her experiences. Not only is she in the public eye, heading up a new foundation, she is also currently chief executive of Camelot, which runs the lottery.

In the BBC Television series Bullying - a survival guide, celebrities were reeled out to share their life-shattering childhood memories with today's children. Comedians, explorers, adventurers, pop stars and the like all seemly traumatised by the bully at the time but highly successful later on.

Perhaps bullying doesn't "wreck" lives after all?

In fact, we all know it doesn't. If it did, then the vast majority of society would be emotional cripples, because bullying is as common as the "cold" and old as the hills. Hands up all those of you who were called names, teased, sent to "Coventry" or tripped up when you were small. It is a loss of perspective on childhood by adults that allows the trivial nastiness that we all experienced during our schooldays to be confused with the rare tragedies that happen to some.

Publicity, awareness-raising, policy and action on this exaggerated basis are counter-productive at best but more likely result in unnecessary fear among children and professionals.

Children without their own fully formed perspectives on life draw their conclusions from adult responses. If they follow the current lead, they will experience peer conflict as highly upsetting and perhaps damaging. Who knows, they might even contact a helpline for support?

Some children call Childline and say that their teacher took no action when they reported that they were being bullied. Is this outrageous dereliction of duty or could it be professional discretion? Happily, it seems that there are still some teachers who like to assess whether what is being reported to them actually is "the end of the world" before they act. Those that don't judge and interpret events run the risk of further confirming a pupil's partial and consequently disproportionate experiences as valid.

As for teachers in general, who wouldn't struggle not to step in when the school anti-bullying policy insists that you must? Better safe than sorry - especially when a career is at stake. After all, you can't be too careful.

Or can you be "too careful"? When professional judgment is replaced with policy and procedure, as it often is, we can be.

The increased supervision of children's time and space that forms the major element of anti-bullying policies stifles children's social development.

Children need the space to take chances and make mistakes so that they can learn. If children can't make these mistakes, where do we leave the essential role of error in learning? If getting it wrong holds no consequences, how will a child be motivated to get it right?

As with Spartacus, we all need to deal with "Romans" at some point in our lives. But relying on authority figures and not being able to stand up and be counted, now that could really wreck your life.

Simon Knight is a director of and manages youth work projects near Glasgow.

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