Let's get real about bullying

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Too much adult interference in pupil conflict leaves children ill-equipped to fight their own battles later, argues Simon Knight.

Bullying has become the education talking point for the Nineties, replacing "cuts" as the chief concern of professionals working with children. Statisticians would say its high profile is warranted: a 1994 study by Sheffield University found that 10 per cent of primary and 3 per cent of secondary children were bullied once a week.

The child safety charity, Kidscape, says 68 per cent of children raise bullying as a problem, and the telephone helpline, ChildLine, says it is the most frequent concern of its callers.

There's no doubt that some children systematically and repeatedly persecute others. This can be violent, and children experiencing it can suffer serious short-term side-effects. Today, however, definitions of bullying are so wide they have become meaningless. Kidscape includes sarcasm, teasing and spreading rumours in its definition. BBC Education refers to being "deliberately unfriendly" and "sending someone to Coventry" in its pamphlet to accompany the series Bullying: a Survival Guide.

Young people do not like being called names or ignored. But when these common unpleasant aspects of growing up are conflated with more serious behaviour, it makes a mockery of real tragedies and can only serve to cause unnecessary concern for professionals and worry among children.

The exaggeration of the seriousness of the problem of bullying has practical implications. Parents worry that the school they choose isa "safe school", so they look for proof. Schools have to sell themselves to parents by adopting prominent anti-bullying policies, and have to be constantly mindful of the fallout that can be generated by high-profile incidents. A newsworthy court case brought by a parent is the biggest possible turn-off.

Yet although policies may generate reassurance, they also prescribe responses - and thus over-rule professional judgment. Teachers are increasingly finding themselves having to intervene in pupil conflict that in the past would have been allowed to run its natural course. A trivial incident, once reported, now has to be acted upon. Teachers find themselves deferring to the incomplete and partial experiences of children whose everyday rough-and-tumble can occupy their time to the extent that serious cases get lost in the queue.

Many anti-bullying strategies increase supervision on children during what should be their free time. Unrestricted and unsupervised peer interaction is important for their development - exploring, experimenting, taking decisions and making mistakes all contribute to growing up. Adult interventions may be well intentioned, but can stifle learning. Just by being there, a teacher affects the outcome, and relationships play themselves out differently.

The young people I work with act differently when I am around. I can ensure no one gets picked on or hurt, but this hardly prepares them for a time when they will have to run their own relationships. How can children form an understanding of their own and other people's emotions without ever experiencing unfettered conflict or kindness? We may be able to give pointers, but social skills can't be taught or enforced. They can only be learned by child-ren experiencing things for themselves. Could the over-zealous nature of our urge to pro-tect children actually be making their world a more dangerous place?

A child who never learns how to cope with or resolve conflict is going to have real problems in later life. There isn't always going to be a third party to turn to. Not being able to resolve problems for them-selves will be far more of a hindrance than a few unpleasant moments during the "best days of their lives".

Simon Knight is a school link youth worker and spokesperson for Generation - Youth Issues, a Scottish youth rights campaign based in Glasgow

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