"I know I'm ugly," declared my nine-year-old with resigned conviction, surveying her cute features in the bathroom mirror. "Everybody says so, so there."
Well! Better than having a conceited child, some old-fashioned matrons may snort. Perhaps, but it's hardly good news: this untruth has gone to the heart of her self-perception. "Ugly" is one of the most common insults primary kids swap in the playground. Just harmless banter? Not when, as it seems, a lot of them take it seriously.
"Children are cruel" is one of our great adult wisdoms. It happens to be true, but how far do we still regard some of its most wounding manifestations as the subject for that familiar dismissive advice "just ignore it"?
I'm not convinced either teachers or some parents tackle everyday name-calling with the importance it deserves - in a way which actually reflects its impact on children. There's still a lot of traditional thinking lurking in adult minds: they've got to learn to stand up for themselves.
In most schools, thank God, racist taunts and jibes against disabled children are now seen as unacceptable ... even though individual schools still vary too much in the way they tackle this. But other kinds of name-calling also have to be confronted directly: it doesn't make sense to have an anti-bullying policy, complete with posters, and leave this problem floating around on the periphery, just because kids have such unerring aim with the names they devise.
I know an ungainly boy who has recently changed schools. He didn't have any friends, he was called weirdo and dumbo and baldy and more besides. Now his classmates admit they feel guilty, and reveal that they used to get him the blame for things he hadn't done, like hitting other children in class. I hope he is happier in his new school, but what guarantee can there be of that?
I know overweight children who face cries of "fatty" every day, and two girls who used to wet their beds, who still get taunts of "nappy-wearer" in the playground. Name-calling persists years after the stigma they identify has gone. My kid, who used to have a runny nose, still gets taunted as "nosepicker" by older schoolmates.
Learning-disabled people have made an issue of name-calling, and more power to them and their support groups. They've revealed - for instance, through making their own videos - how their whole lives and self-images have been blighted by a stream of deliberate or thoughtless abuse - spastic, mongol, dumbo.
Seems to me even young kids, who are perceptive and kind as well as thoughtless and cruel, could learn to think twice with some classroom discussion and role-play that made the connections between their own feelings as victims, and their behaviour as minor playground bullies. Let us know your own inventive schemes, and what the results have been.
My impression is children take their cue from teachers, and it's alarming how many still - in 1998 - call their pupils names when exasperation overwhelms: stupid, sad, big baby. Sure, parents do it all the time - but two wrongs don't make a right.
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