Bully for who?

Anti-bullying policies confuse serious abuse with the rough and tumble of childhood.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

It’s the first ever Anti-Bullying Week, and the UK government is urging children to ‘take a stand’ on the issue by wearing a blue wristband. Pop and sports stars will get the message out on radio and TV, and schools are being asked to sign up to an anti-bullying Charter for Action.

Children are certainly ingenious when it comes to thinking up ways of torturing each other. They know the insults that will stab, the punishment that will hurt. And for the kid on the receiving end, the result can be misery. But should this be a matter for government policy?

There is a difference between the few serious and harmful cases of bullying, which nobody ignores, and the broad variety of incidents that are being highlighted in this campaign. A poll of parents released to coincide with Anti-Bullying Week claimed that one in five children had been bullied in the past year. A BBC Radio 1 website launched in association with Anti-Bullying Week captured what is now the official and widely accepted definition of bullying, which can include: teasing, sarcasm, name-calling, pushing, hitting or punching, taking your money or personal belongings, spreading rumours or starting gossip about you, getting you into trouble for no real reason, or excluding you (1).

If name-calling or not speaking to someone is bullying, who could look back on their childhood and say that they weren’t bullied, or that they never bullied somebody else? It diminishes the importance of real problems if they are lumped together with petty complaints. As far as I remember, teenage girls spent most of their time making new best friends, and ignoring and being spiteful about those who had fallen out of favour. Boys tended to negotiate their peer groups through more direct physical methods. Much of this was unpleasant, and in retrospect pretty stupid, but it is also an important part of growing up. In this push and pull of friends and enemies, children are learning how to manage relationships with others and to stand up for themselves. This can be as much a preparation for adult life as are maths and English lessons.

It is unlikely that bullying has got any worse. Yet now there is a full-blown industry to deal with it. Experts warn that bullying can lead to ‘low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, self-harm and sometimes suicide’, and are developing a whole swathe of special anti-bullying techniques. The official Charter for Action recommends that schools keep a ‘record of the incidence of bullying’, and encourage kids to come forward with a ‘secure anxiety box for safe complaining’ (2).

The Anti-Bullying Alliance, a recent recipient of £570,000 of government funding, outlines the different techniques for dealing with bullying. One is to train pupils to mediate disputes and offer support to the victim: peer listening ‘gives pupils access to a friendly ear’; peer befriending is ‘when the bullied pupil is befriended by another pupil of the same age, with the aim of increasing their sense of belonging’; and peer mediation is where ‘trained peer mediators solve problems between pupils by encouraging them to define the problem, identify key issues and arrive at a fair solution’ (3).

Then there is ‘shared concern’, specially designed for targeting a long-standing group of bullies: the teacher uses a ‘script’ to talk to each of the bullies with the aim of ‘each pupil agreeing to try to improve the situation’; individual follow-up meetings are held to ‘review progress’; and a final meeting aims to ‘reach a public agreement about reasonable behaviour by everyone over the long term’. Bullied pupils may also have access to assertiveness training, which includes ‘learning how to make assertive statements’ – and bullies themselves may be offered help to deal with their problems.

Children are discouraged from trying to sort out their problems for themselves. Rather than avoid somebody who is picking on you, or try to win allies in your support, you’re expected to go through official conflict resolution programmes and become the subject of a ‘peer befriending’ scheme.

Kids always used to be reluctant to dob in their peers, however nasty their behaviour. Today this silence is seen as unhealthy, and children are urged to come forward. But the shame of telling tales was partly down to pride – kids didn’t want to look as if they were running for help. There was also an understanding that the separate worlds of adults and children have different rules; different standards of judgement, reward and punishment. You didn’t tell your mum that so-and-so mocked your new shoes and spat at you, because she wouldn’t understand how important it was to have the right shoes, or that so-and-so was the most popular person in the school.

Although bullying itself might not have got any worse, what has changed is the way in which adult society looks at playground goings-on. For an adult world that has a heightened sense of individual vulnerability, the tussles and taunts of the playground have come to seem very distressing. Teachers and policymakers warn that there is a slippery slope between teasing and suicide, and that the scars of childhood bullying could mark people for life.

Adults seem to have lost their sense of perspective. There is something odd about government ministers preoccupying themselves with the minutiae of children’s lives: who called who names, who wrote on whose pencil case. Children feel that these are a matter of life and death; adults used to know that they were not. Now it seems that government ministers are adopting children’s worldview, warning that somebody calling you names really could ruin your life.

I wonder how these policies are playing out in playgrounds across Britain. It’s possible that ‘peer befriender’ might become a new insult, meaning somebody who can’t get mates of their own; and the blue armband comes to denote somebody who is soft or square. And some of the smarter kids might even wonder whether government ministers don’t have more important things to worry about.

(1) Beat Bullying on the BBC Radio 1 website

(2) Charter for Action

(3) Making schools safer using effective anti-bullying techniques, Anti-Bullying Alliance

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Topics Politics


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