Why do we send children to school? The old system of learning from a parent or from governesses has much to recommend it in the way of individual attention and content focussed educational needs of the individual.
But school is the preferred option for most as, apart from specialist teaching, the children become part of a group and learn from one another. They learn not only from one another on any particular topic, but they learn to be a contributing part of a social group and, it is to be hoped, how groups work.
How much should teachers protect them from how social groups really work and artificially alter the relationships within such groups? Obviously to some extent, because children need both encouragement and modeling in how to be empathic, sharing, accepting and practice in how to lead and be assertive without aggression.
Fortunately there seems to be close to universal agreement among us that children should be kept safe from deliberate physical harm or threats of physical harm from their peers. Therefore physical bullying within the group is not (and should not be) tolerated in any form in any school. The idea of non-acceptance of the escalation of such physical violence by physical retaliation is also gradually becoming much more widely accepted than it once was.
At present there is a clamor from parents for even more; that children be protected from other forms of negative emotional and mental interaction present in groups of children and which nowdays they also referred to as “bullying”. Such interactions can include persistent name calling, forming “in” and “out” groups, cyber denigration (leaving aside obviously illegal physical cyber threats) and the general nasty activities which, if not most then many, children are capable of at different times in their development.
Should we protect them from such behaviours or should we rather teach them to mange them? When they are occupying the powerful role in the interaction should we rather encourage them to feel on behalf of others? When they occupy the less powerful role do we teach them that we have faith in their strength and ability to cope? These roles often change over time with the oppressor becoming the oppressed and vice versa. Cases in which these role changes do not naturally occur usually need different interventions. The behaviours and messages being sent to and by both the long term oppressors and the long term oppressed children need to be reviewed and we need to try to help both types of children. They need to see how their own attitudes are not leading to optimum relationships for them. Occasionally one or other type of behaviours is being modelled at home by a parent, sibling or relative.
I was heartened by the former Justice and now ABC Chairman James Sigelman’s words on proposed changes to discrimination legislation. He says the legislation already gives protection from vilification and humiliation but he goes on to say, ” There is no right not to be offended. The right to offend is an integral part of freedom of speech.”
It happens. It is a natural and sometimes important part of life in a group.
Our children need to learn to cope with offense, to be strong enough to take it when they feel offended, to be strong enough to think and then change if the offense gives them some insight and to challenge if it is unwarranted. They need to be strong enough to risk giving offense and risk being rejected at times when they feel an injustice or a wrong is taking place.
Children are usually capable of coping but if and when they are somewhat fragile, it is our absolute duty to support and assist them to develop strengths in their interactions, not merely protect them from exposure to peer disapproval every step of the way even when this disapproval is not very kindly expressed. Children who do not learn to cope with offensive disapproval from their peers may well both over use offense and be offended far too often at every step of their way through life.