Bullying crackdown makes our children soft

26th February 2016 at 00:00

IS THERE a link between the higher stress and anxiety levels suffered by young adults and the anti-bullying policies in place in our schools? Well, according to Jonathan Haidt, an American psychologist and professor of business ethics, there is. He believes a school culture of no tolerance to bullying has led to a generation of adults who are not only unable to cope with life’s setbacks, but also quick to find offence in even the most innocuous of things.

You only have to look at the below-the-lines comments for any online news story to see that this is the age of the outraged. It’s not only individuals but also organisations that feel offended by the slightest thing.

Recently, sombreros were banned from a freshers’ ball at the University of East Anglia as they were deemed to be offensive when not worn by a Mexican. Then there was Uefa deciding to charge the football club Manchester City after fans booed the official Champions’ League anthem – multi-national football governing bodies have feelings, too!

Haidt contends that this over-sensitivity in adulthood correlates with our looser definition of what bullying is: “There’s no longer a connection to physical violence, it no longer requires repetition, and it no longer requires intent. If someone feels excluded or marginalised by a single event, they have been bullied, and there’s zero tolerance for that.”

Most readers will have experience of this: the pupil who reports an incident of bullying, and you struggle to see why some random name-calling should be so judged. Often it is the teacher who is considered to be the culprit when a pupil is told to stop behaving so childishly, and they decide that they are offended by the teacher’s judgmental language. Sometimes the pupils are offended on behalf of others: I have had some question the use of the phrase “black sheep” – they think it could well be considered racist.

Meanwhile, universities are reporting an increasing number of students seeking counselling for anxiety and other stress-related issues, while seven out of 10 workers aged 18-24 phoned in sick because of a stress-related illness during 2012 (http://bit.ly/WorkStressCalls).

Has our widened definition of bullying reduced young adults’ ability to cope with stress?

Haidt recommends that where a school has an anti-bullying policy, it should also have an “anti-coddling” one. In other words, teachers should build the resilience of pupils just as much as we show no tolerance to bullying, so that adults are not rendered overly fragile by their childhoods.

In theory, that sounds ideal, but in practice I feel the pendulum has swung too far in our desire to protect children from the challenges of life.

Gordon Cairns is an English and Forest Schools teacher in Glasgow

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