Over the last few years, personal experience and explorations of media have taught me that when it comes to children bullying other children, we (as a society) have some very weird ideas. There is often much pressure on the victim to prove the problem is genuine, and that they are not over-reacting and making a fuss about nothing. The victim is encouraged to ‘toughen up’. More so if they happen to be a boy. Many people see verbal and physical bullying between children as a normal, healthy part of growing up. I can only assume these people have never been significantly on the receiving end, or watched their own child suffer.
Parents of bullies can be surprisingly fast to defend their child. Particularly if they are boys. Girls get away with a fair amount of bitching and verbal sniping, and violence between boys is brushed away as ‘normal rough and tumble’. If one child, regardless of gender, repeatedly comes out of a situation distressed, then there is a problem and it needs taking seriously.
Children are not born with an innate sense of right and wrong. Empathy, compassion and tolerance are things they learn (or do not learn) along the way. They (hopefully) learn about other people’s boundaries, about how and when they cause pain, and when they need to modify their behaviour. Socialising a child and turning them into a decent adult is a process. Being a responsible adult, is something you learn. It doesn’t happen automatically. A child who has learned to bully, ridicule, torment, and injure is unlikely to wake up one morning and miraculously decide they are going to treat everyone nicely thereafter.
Self esteem and a sense of worth are not innate things either. Children who are repeatedly on the wrong end of bullying and who are not supported by adults do not do so well developing a sense of self worth. This has implications for how they fare as adults.
Children learn by observation and experience. They see what they can get away with, and they pick up patterns of behaviour based on how they themselves are treated in turn. A child who is treated with care and respect is more likely to be able to be careful and respectful. There’s a classic piece of child psychology research that shows a child who sees an adult beating up a doll is more likely to repeat the action than one who hasn’t. Children learn, and we are teaching them all the time through our own actions, and what we let them get away with.
What do we want them to learn? That crying because someone hurt you is sissy? That protesting against violence and abuse is wrong? What is that laying down for the adult they will become? Do we want them to learn that if you say you didn’t mean it, that makes it ok to have hurt someone? That ‘we were just having a laugh’ means it doesn’t matter if someone else is crying? How many of us look at knife crime in teenagers, and the frequency with which they harm each other, and despair? They don’t wake up one morning and decide out of the blue to start beating the crap out of each other and kicking to death people who happen to be different. (Which happened to a goth in the UK). They’ve learned, years ago, that it’s ok to pick on the oddballs, and ok to play rough. They stop being children. They grow bigger, and they get sharper, more dangerous toys, and every now and then, someone dies.
It starts on the playground.