How not to raise a bully
You probably hate bullies. It's not a terribly bold presumption.
Posted on 21.01.2020
You don’t like the person hectoring the retail worker at the supermarket. You feel for the friend who was monstered out of a job by a domineering boss. But most of all, probably, your heart breaks when your favourite kid spills the beans about a sustained campaign of intimidation and mockery endured in the wilds of the school playground.
According to the Australia Talks survey, a vast majority of Australians (83 per cent of us) think bullying is a problem in schools. It doesn’t matter what your background, or whether you have kids in public or private schools, almost all of us believe bullying is a problem.
So if we all dislike the idea of bullying, why do bullies exist? Presumably their parents didn’t set about trying to build one.
How are bullies made?
I was chatting to a teacher friend of mine about the time-honoured sport of blaming-parents-for-dreadful-children when I tried out that line about how nobody sets out to build a bully.
That was when the good intentions paradox popped up. “The sad thing is,” she said, “often the most damaging attitudes come from a place of love.”
Great, I thought. What have I done wrong now?
She went on to tell me that she has had parents ask her, when weighing up the benefits of excursions and after-school activities, “Will it help them get a good mark in their final year of high school?”
At this point, she leaned towards me and whispered desperately: “I teach in a primary school.”
Subsequently, I’ve bothered lots of my teacher mates about this. The education system is increasingly competitive and unaffordable, the cost of living is so high, and the future is terrifying. Parents attempting to quantify their children’s educational prospects might be slightly crass, but is it hurting anyone?
According to the research, focusing on academic output at the expense of creativity, problem-solving, and emotional resilience in the early years is certainly not helping.
There’s a poem by American poet Louise Glück, the last two lines of which are:
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.
Science backs this up. The most formative years are, according to decades of research, the early years of childhood. So if this is when we become who we are, if it’s how we learn right from wrong and decide what to do with that information, is this when bullies are made?
When I was a kid, unstructured play experiences with peers of various ages made up the majority of our leisure time. Almost all of it took place outdoors. We leapt off things, balanced along planks of wood, clambered up trees, made forts, fought wars, invented universes and argued over rules.
These days, for thoroughly understandable reasons, play is usually supervised, risk-averse, structured, indoors, and takes place in too-short bursts. I looked up how many hours Australian children spend playing outdoors, only to discover that most Australian children do not play outside every day at all.
And the empaths shall inherit the earth
Very soon, cars will literally drive themselves. Technology will be smarter. The only bit humans will be required for is doing the jobs they need to be humans at. Judging, creating, anticipating, regulating.
So by encouraging children to know themselves, feel safe and supported to make mistakes, letting them get muddy and have arguments, you’re actually increasing not only their chance at being able to get that good mark in high school, but the chance they’ll be a well-rounded, employable, kind, empathetic person in the world.
In other words, for once the news is good: to make a human who isn’t a bully, perhaps all you need to do is take them to a park while you read a book under a tree. Let them play in the world. The rest is memory.
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