Monday 17 November 2008


Don’t outlaw boisterous
banter in the playground

As Britain launches another Anti-Bullying Week, the author of Reclaiming Childhood says demonising teasing can do more harm than good.

This year’s anti-bullying week in the UK – with its theme of ‘Being different, belonging together’ – kicks off today. And it provides a powerful reminder that official fretting over children’s wellbeing, over the supposedly terrible dangers of bullying in the playground, can do more harm than good, stunting children’s developmental growth and harming their social interaction with others.

The annual anti-bullying week is an initiative launched by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), founded in 2002 by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the National Children’s Bureau. The ABA brings together 60 organisations ‘with the aim of reducing bullying and creating safer environments in which children and young people can live, grow, play and learn’.

At the launch event for anti-bullying week, in the Globe Theatre in London, the secretary of state for children, families and schools, Ed Balls, said: ‘When I talk to mums and dads, when I talk to children in primary school and secondary school to ask what is really important about school, often they will say that the most important thing is to make sure there isn’t bullying.’ (1)

In last month’s Ofsted survey of more than 150,000 10- to 15-year-olds in England, 39 per cent said they had been bullied at school and over a quarter said bullying was a ‘significant’ concern (2).

In preparation for this year’s anti-bullying week, ABA sent every school in England a resource pack to help prepare them for a stream of anti-bullying initiatives and activities. These include an ‘Ideas for pupils’ section, with suggestions such as: ‘Get everyone in your school to wear blue for the day’, and ‘Get all the people wearing blue into the playground to form different shapes or words – for example “Say No”, “No”, “Stop”, “Stop Bullying”, “Be Unique”’ (3). The packs also include a ‘Briefing for school leaders’ explaining that the theme ‘Being different, belonging together’ will encourage schools to ‘open up the central issue of difference in their communities to further scrutiny, and to use Anti-Bullying Week as an opportunity to ask what it is that makes people unique and different, whilst retaining a key focus on what unites and unifies them’ (4).

As an aside, surely this slogan sits rather uneasily with the government’s anti-obesity drive, and its plan to weigh all children in Reception and Year 6, to see if they are an ‘acceptable’ size? If anything will make children feel different from the ‘norm’, and cut off from their classmates, it will be something like the government’s top-down shaming of chubby children and its celebration of slim children. This government measure is likely to encourage overweight and obese children to obsess unnecessarily about their bodies, to feel like failures in comparison to other children and as a drain on the nation’s resources. It is striking, and very worrying, that almost a third (32 per cent) of the children in the Ofsted survey said they were concerned ‘about their body’ when asked what worried them most.

However, setting aside government hypocrisy over ‘differences’ between kids, surely it is a laudable aim to try to reduce bullying and create a safer environment for children?

For a small minority of children, bullying is undoubtedly a profound problem. Every year we read tragic news stories about children taking their own lives after years of incessant bullying. In 2004, 13-year-old Laura Rhodes from Neath, South Wales, took a fatal overdose. Her parents said she had been terrified by the bullying and taunts she endured at school every day. That same year, 12-year-old Aaron Armstrong was found hanged in a hayshed at his family farm in County Antrim in Ireland after being bullied at school.

Such stories are heartbreaking – and they are precisely why we need to put the discussion about bullying in some proper perspective. Unlike these tragic cases, much that is defined as bullying today is not bullying at all. It is boisterous banter or everyday playground disputes that could – and should – be resolved without adult intervention. Treating all playground disputes as serious acts of abuse does not help victims of terrible bullying, like Laura or Aaron. Indeed, as I argue in my forthcoming book Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, it discourages a proper sense of vigilance about real brutality perpetrated by a handful of children in favour of seeing all relationships between all children as somehow problematic.

Today’s obsession with bullying is not good for children and it is not good for teachers, either. Teachers are increasingly lumbered with the task of looking after children’s health and wellbeing, rather than being allowed to get on with the task of educating them. And children are encouraged to assume that their relationships with other children are damaging, and are tacitly encouraged to look upon their peers with trepidation and suspicion.

As more and more forms of behaviour are labelled as ‘bullying’ – from arguments to group-creation, from name-calling to actual violence – so more and more children come to be labelled as ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’. Professor Dennis Hayes, co-author of the 2008 book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, believes anti-bullying policies are making mattes worse. ‘The more you talk about bullying, the more it sensitises people to every social slight, and the more it becomes a problem’, he argues.

In the ABA’s school resource pack teachers are told that they need to ‘keep the signs of bullying in the forefront of their minds’ (5). But if teachers become involved in every playground spat or squabble, they will both blow incidents out of proportion and, more worryingly still, undermine children’s ability to manage uncomfortable situations.

Some childhood experiences are of course hurtful; and for children, a nasty taunt or a fallout with your best friend can genuinely feel like the end of the world. That does not mean, however, that these experiences actually are harmful. Being left out of a playground game may make a child cry for a week, but by the following week he or she is likely to be involved again and earlier antagonisms will have been forgotten. Children are not emotionally scarred by these experiences: they get over them and move on. Once the experience is labelled as ‘bullying’, however, and a teacher becomes involved and makes it an Official Issue, then it becomes an issue of much greater significance, driving a more permanent wedge between the putative victim and that week’s bullies, and making it far harder for the spontaneous dynamics of playground life to resolve themselves.

There is a real danger that by focusing on bullying we can end up denying children the experiences they need to develop. American sociologist William Corsaro shows that conflict, especially arguments and teasing, can ‘help bring children together and help organise activities’: ‘Recent research on peer conflict among elementary school children shows how disputes are a basic means for construction of social order, cultivating, testing and maintaining friendships, and developing and displaying social identity… Disputes, teasing and conflict can add a creative tension that increases [play’s] enjoyment.’ (5)

If we treat children as if they cannot possibly cope with hurtful experiences, then we will likely undermine their confidence and make them less likely to cope with difficult events in the future. In effect, we will prevent them from growing up.

The UK government document Building Brighter Futures, which outlines a 10-year ‘Children’s Plan’, states: ‘Bullying can destroy lives and have an immeasurable impact on young people’s confidence, self-esteem, mental health and social and emotional development.’ This obsession with the long-term effects of bullying leads to a situation where children might become unwilling, and even incapable of, resolving their own problems with their peers – and that could damage children’s development, and their relationships with each other, far more than the odd stone thrown or insult shouted.

(1) Stars back anti-bullting campaign, Press Association, 14 November 2008
 
(2) Majority of youngsters are happy - new survey finds - but many worry about bullying, drink and drugs,Ofsted, 28 October 2008

(3) See the Anti-Bullying Alliance’s Ideas for pupils.
 
(4) See the Anti-Bullying Alliance’s Briefing for school leaders
 
(5) See the Anti-Bullying Alliance’s Briefing for school leaders
 
(6) ‘Preadolescent Peer Culture’, by WA Corsaro, in Making Sense of Social Development, M Woodhead, D Faulkner and K Littleton (eds), Routledge, 1999

First published by spiked