Standing up for the playground bullies

Cross-Europe anti-bullying campaigns underestimate children’s resilience and overestimate their fragility.

Eero Iloniemi

Topics Politics

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I attended eight different schools in three different countries before university. I therefore feel fairly confident saying I know what it feels like to be the new kid on the block. Later, as a parent and a member of my sons’ school’s parent-teacher association, I have had a chance to revisit the issue from a different perspective.

Bullying is, like football racism, one of the horreurs du jour right now, so I am obliged to make the ridiculous but apparently all-too-necessary disclaimers: of course bullying can be a horrifying experience to a child. I have no doubt that bullying exists and should be resisted.

My point is that schoolyard bullying isn’t nearly as clear cut as anti-bullying activists claim. And sometimes, probably more often than you think, the roles of bully and victim aren’t what they appear to be.

Whether we like it or not, arguing, teasing and fighting are normal parts of childhood. Learning to tell the difference between a spat and systematic bullying should be a basic parenting skill, but our much vaunted zero-tolerance policies on bullying make it impossible. They also make it very difficult for children to reform their behaviour.

Here in Finland, zero tolerance means that when Jack hits Jill (actually its Juha and Jaana), or even calls her a bad name, teachers are obliged to write a ‘bullying report’. Every incident is registered, boasts the national anti-bullying campaign KiVA. Of course, when every incident is treated like a potential crime, teachers’ roles change dramatically.

She cannot simply say: stop it! Nor can she simply scold the perpetrator or propose such age-old solutions as ‘shake hands and make up’. Her job is no longer to educate, but to investigate. Once a report is being made, the accused child’s parents immediately – and quite naturally – become Jack’s defence advocates. They tell their child to deny everything and challenge every accusation by demanding irrefutable proof. No one wants a bully stamp on their child’s record.

The process demeans the teacher’s authority, eliminates arbitration and belittles personal responsibility, as it teaches children that guilt is dependent on proof and not conscience, and that sincere apologising is not honorable but contrary to self-interest.

And children do learn. They soon learn that making accusations gives power, and zero tolerance means the presumption of guilt. Our current interpretation of bullying is entirely subjective, thus bullying occurs whenever someone feels he or she has been bullied. We have already had a case of bullying where Jack told Jill she has a nice hat. Jack thought he was complementing her, but Jill interpreted it as a sarcastic remark.

In another case, boys who didn’t allow a girl into their game were considered bullies by way of exclusion. So children no longer have the luxury of choosing who they play with. It was not systematic shunning; but a single incident was enough.

In this Orwellian world, no good deed goes unpunished. Children learn that any word or gesture can be seen as malevolent. Those who want to see themselves as victims are amply rewarded; bullying is everywhere. For those of us who still believe that children are neither as vicious nor as fragile as we are now led to believe, it’s time to realise that the over-officious anti-bullying campaigns are a part of the problem.

Eero Iloniemi is a political consultant and a father of two based in Helsinki.

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Topics Politics


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