Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Where ignorance is bliss

I sometimes think that we get far too much information for our own good. Further, in trying to respond, we just make things worse.

Yesterday evening I was struck by one those sudden fits of depression so bad that it quickly led to a headache. The cause was simple enough: almost consecutive stories about stress among children, suggesting that young school kids in Australia today were the most stressed of any previous cohort; about ADHD and the way medicalisation of the condition had led to excessive drug taking; the tragic story of a thirteen year old who had stabbed and killed a twelve year old, leading to calls for enhanced security at schools. This death was apparently linked in some way to cyber bullying not connected in any way with the twelve year old.

The problem with all this information is to work out how to process it, what it all means, how to respond.

Youngest was once diagnosed with ADHD. We sought advice because her teachers were worried: she wasn't a problem at school; they were just concerned for her welfare. Teachers were also worried that her poor hand-eye coordination meant that she would not be able to write properly.

Medication was recommended to assist her.  We ignored that advice, although we did take her to a therapist for a period to try to improve her motor skills. As it turned out, her behaviour was just on one side of the normal range, while sport overcame the hand-eye problem. I admit that as her father I am quite one-eyed, but she has gelled down into a rather wonderful girl. Many of the the things that worried her teachers are simply expressions of exuberance and the underlying creativity that is such a feature of her personality. She has faults, but so do we all.

Cyber bullying is a real problem. Bullying has always been a problem in any social grouping, a nasty expression of one aspect of the human personality including the herd instinct. I was bullied at school, but could at least escape at home. Cyber bullying carries school problems into the personal and home space; there may be no escape.

Sometimes bullying is in fact un-thinking, simply a lack of empathy. Here people generally grow out of it as their emotional maturity improves. Sometimes the desire to wound, to hurt, carries through into later life. Anybody in the blogging world will know this: just look at the comment streams on some blogs!

Listening to the commentary on bullying, I was struck by the way in which it was treated as an almost medical condition. There needed to be new protocols, teachers required special training, there should be special activities in schools to persuade children not to bully.

Poor teachers. In addition to their primary role as teachers, they are meant to do things now that would bedevil Solomon.

I have known many teachers over my life: as a student, as a friend, as a parent. I have a very high opinion of them as a group, but also no unreal expectations. There are good teachers and bad teachers, those that worry and are concerned, those who have burnt out and have had to close down to some degree simply to protect themselves.

In all this, I do not expect teachers to be a front line defence in meeting social ills. They simply cannot do it. That is not their role. We set them up to fail.

Looking at my own experiences at school and then my children's, listening to parents talk at social and school functions, listening to kids talk not just about their own experiences, but also about their parents and their attitudes, I have been struck by a number of things.

The first is that things pass. To some degree at least, good times can follow bad. My very unhappy years at school were followed by some of the best times in my life. This seems to have happened to eldest as well. I did not know until much later just how unhappy she was at one point in school. While I do feel distressed that I did not pick this up, it may be just as well because I could not really have done anything about it. 

The second is that kids find their own coping behaviour. In my case, I became special friends with some of the others who did not fit in, while finding outlets outside the school. Youngest went a stage further: she melded a group of girls who were different into a recognised group with their own place in the pecking order, where a degree of eccentricity was recognised and indeed played too.

The third is just how protective parents have become.

This seems, and this is purely impressionistic, to have increased over the period my children were at school. I simply didn't know how to handle some of the conversations I had with other parents when I listened to their views on risk, risk avoidance, their expectations about their daughters and the school and what they wanted done. I also listened to parents who felt something was wrong, worried about their daughters, but simply didn't know what to do.

In saying all this, I am not saying that bullying is not a problem, nor am I discounting the distress that it can cause. Speaking personally, having one's genitals bootpolished is hardly pleasant. What I am saying, is that treating bullying as a universal without attention to context and case is not especially helpful.

Speaking only from my own experience, there are two circumstances where a degree of bullying moves from a normal human experience, part of learning to cope, to a severe problem that must be addressed.

The first is where bullying becomes endemic and entrenched in a particular school or indeed work environment.

My experience had been that bullying rises and falls with particular cohorts.

Normally, there are checks and balances in the working of a school as a society that act to correct the worse excesses. Kids, note I say kids not teachers, are not dumb. Over time, they tend to correct the worst excesses, sometimes in quite savage ways. However, bullying can become entrenched.

Endemic bullying has to be stamped out.

Two of the most classic and graphic accounts of bullying can be found in English school stories.

The first is Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's School Days, where Tom meets with Flashman. The roasting of Tom Brown against the fire remains a horror classic. The second is Rudyard Kipling's Stalky and Co where the detailed description of bullying techniques makes what happens in NSW schools look like a pussy cat. This is institutionalised bullying of the worse type.

Both books were based on the authors' experiences. In both, the bully meets a just end.

In the more moralistic Tom Brown's School Days, it is the combination of Tom's courage with Arnold as a new head that brings about  the end, captured in the words "Mr Flashman, you are expelled." 

In the case of Stalky and Co,the path is a little different.

There Stalky and his cohorts, I always identified with the egregious Beatle who was in fact Kipling himself, have established power in the school. However, they have stood aside from the problem of bullying, intent on their own concerns. The school chaplain, aware of the bullying and their potential power in the school, comes to have a chat to them. Sitting in their study smoking his pipe, he suggests in somewhat elliptical fashion that they might like to do something about the issue.

The boys receive the message and then respond in a way that today would seem quite wrong. They trap the bullies and then subject them to the same treatment they had accorded others. This is recounted in graphic detail. When discussion in the school staff room turns to the remarkable transformation in the behaviour of the bullies, the chaplain just smiles. 

As someone who was bullied and as a day boy in a predominantly boarding school, both stories had enormous resonance. Tom Brown's School Day's appealed first, but it was Stalky & Co that had the greatest impact. Indeed, it triggered actions that were part of the process that turned the worst days of my life into some of if not the happiest days of my life.

While the two books are very different, both are written from the viewpoint of the students, both deal with endemic and entrenched bullying. Endemic bullying must be addressed, but the application of general, universal approaches does not always help. Action must be people and school specific and must start local. It also helps if those being bullied have access, as I did, to material that helps us see that we are not alone.

The second area where action is required is far more difficult.

Some kids just don't fit in with particular systems and are particularly vulnerable because they are different. Some of us like youngest, turn difference into a strength. Others, I have two very specific cases in mind, have their whole life damaged.

I don't actually have a solution here beyond moving the child from the school in question because normally it's not just a question of bullying in the conventional sense. Bullying becomes an issue because certain other kids target difference, but its also the response from the kids in general. Kids, like their parents in fact, are suspicious of difference.

I seem to have come a long way from  my opening heading that ignorance is bliss. I suppose that sometimes it is better not to know if you cannot do anything about it or where the solution may in fact be worse than the original problem.


Jayne said...

My youngest has Asperger's, Tourette's and ADHD, and was bullied quite badly at school until we removed him.
He was not the only victim of the bully but the preferred one; barely 2 months later the bully, aged 9, put his new pet victim and the school principal into hospital for which he was suspended from school for 3 months. He has since been expelled and is repeating his abuse at another nearby school with at least 1 family removing their child (that I know of).
Yes, ignorance is indeed bliss, to keep trying in the face of adversity will yield results even in the most unexpected places. My son's been home schooled for the past 4 years and is now, age 13, on his second year of Uni studies, despite the principal (he who was attacked by the bully he would not pull into line)stating my son would learn nothing...guess who's having the last laugh? :)

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Jayne. How nice to have contact with you in a different context!

I am not sure how to respond beyond the obvious sympathy. I think that I would draw a few conclusions from your story.

First, you illustrate the problems that parents can have when their kids strike problems.

My sister in law and her husband had a similar problem with their school when youngest was subjected to apparent sexual abuse. I say apparent not because the abuse didn't happen, but because the offender was too young too see the real sexual connotations of his behaviour. It was young toilet prurience set in nasty physical form.

Secondly, you illustrate what happens with difference, a point I was trying to make. You are to be congratulated on your son's performance. And don't you feel, as I do with youngest, like saying yah, boo, sucks to you!

Mind you, we were much luckier than you in that those concerned really were concerned. They cared.

I am not sure that I can put this as clearly as I should, but I think that I would argue that rules have taken the place of compassion ans concern.