Please Vote For Me – Or Else

This documentary, made 12 years ago, but still packed with relevance today is fascinating on so many levels, but also quite scary in terms of the underlying messages. The starting premise is a simple one – a class of 8 year olds who would in the past have had a class monitor imposed upon them by their teacher are to engage in an exercise in democracy to elect their own class monitor.

If you wish to watch the whole film (and it is well worth watching) I recommend you do so before reading any further – major spoiler alerts to follow!

Firstly, this has to be seen in the context of a country where perceptions of democracy and power, and how power is gained, used and retained, are very different to those portrayed in a western context (and therefore part of my upbringing and education). This is an environment where leadership equals power and the question becomes whether that power to control and direct is wielded benevolently or with with bad intent.

These are just children, but influenced and often guided by the adults in their lives their actions mimic the very worst, exploitative, crooked and dishonest machinations of politicians in the adult world. Whether it’s buying the votes, focusing on demeaning and belittling your opponent or plain dishonesty they will take any actions necessary to gain power.

One of the things that stands out for me is the passivity of the teacher. She seems frequently to be fully aware of how brutish, cruel, dishonest and wrong some of the actions are, but seems more than happy to stand passively by and observe. It’s almost as though she wants that these children will finish the process concluding that this democracy thing is hurtful, brutish and bad and be turned against it.

Early in the film the children are heard singing a lyric – “we are the successors of communism,” and we have to remember that this was seen as a time of new beginning, freedoms and liberty for the Chinese people, but many were surely unsure how long it would last, or what they were to do with these new-found freedoms. The power of being class monitor is equated clearly and simply with the right to be a legitimized bully, lauding it over others and making them act in accordance with your wishes. physical force to control others in the classroom or the home is legitimised.

At times it’s not easy to see the emotional pains that these children inflict on each other.ย  The reality is they are very young and some of this is hard to deal with. The presence of the cameras seems to do little to abate what seems to amount to bullying by anyone’s standards. There are clear signs of the pressures to perform and the levels of stress experienced by these children at such a young age. The weight of parental expectations in all their actions lays heavily upon their tiny shoulders.

There are some things that don’t change from one culture to another. the girl is encouraged to be pretty, demure and her emotional vulnerability is accepted. The boys are expected to take much more physical, aggressive and forceful steps and not to show their emotions (though at this age they’re not so good at hiding) – “Dry your tears, you’re big boys.”.

And the end result? Status quo and a level of comfort with the known. The boy Luo Lei who has been class monitor for the last two years is re-elected. These children may be young, but already they come across as bowed down by the responsibilities that self-determination place upon them. This boy may be a bully, a tyrant who rules roughly and with force, but the idea of choice and responsibility sits uncomfortably. with most of them. His winning margin is considerable and even as the votes are still being counted, his classmates begin to curry favour with him in the hope that he will remember they were ‘always on his side.’

The pain and trauma is clear – enough to put any self-respecting child off ideas of independence, self-determination and responsibility. Much easier to let others control life and take the big decisions.

Advertisements

Discipline and Punishment

There are certain beliefs that are so ingrained in our society that few ever question them. One is that adults, being bigger and older, have the right to ‘control’ children. In times gone by this came through sayings like – ‘children should be seen and not heard’. It’s in the nature of power that those with it control and dictate compliance to those who have none or less of it.

Next – through sayings like ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ we see the workings of the belief that the ‘discipline’ required in a child will only come about through control, coercion and even ultimately the use of punishment – whether that be physical or mental. In this day and age it is, to my mind, rather extraordinary that there are states in the US where the right to physically chastise/ punish/ assault (!) children is still given to teachers in schools. I believe the more enlightened places are the European countries where it’s made very clear that physical punishment of a child by anyone (including parents) is illegal.

There are all sorts of reasons why use of physical force against children should no longer be accepted in society. These include the fact that brutalized children are more likely to be violent to their peers, such use of violence is more about lack of anger control on the part of the adult than punishing the child. But, the biggest reason is that all the evidence tells us very strongly that it just plain doesn’t work. Where it may produce ‘acceptable behaviour’ as compliance, all evidence suggests that when the fear of the punishment isn’t there the behaviour is no more likely to be replicated.

I’m well aware that there are cultural elements to the attitudes on this, but what we have to understand is that as more evidence is built about psychology, and especially child psychology, the more willing people must be to challenge cultural orthodoxies. There are cultures within which the belief is that whether children or adults people need to be pressured to do right and that positive behaviour only happens in the face of potential punishment. These are the people who applaud the rigid and forceful laws and policing in places like Singapore. I personally subscribe to a belief that with the right moral compass and positive habits people will do right because it is right without the need for fear or coercion.

Discipline is a big issue in schools. Where there is weak discipline too many children are acting in ways that can prevent others from having a fair opportunity to learn as they want and need. In the worst cases it can make school a dangerous place when poor discipline manifests in peer to peer violence or bullying. Many seek to maintain discipline through fear of punishments, through control and also by organising learning activities in such a way that students are regimented, docile and passive – making it easier to control discipline. However, we know that this is not the best way to learn. We also know that it doesn’t lead to the best learning of self discipline, but instead can lead to a sullen, pseudo-compliance and fake obedience – we do what you demand while you’re watching us, but you can’t be watching us all the time.

Here are two interesting articles. Whilst both are written from the perspective of parents and discipline in the home, there’s much that is relevant for teachers and schools when thinking about how to maintain positive, healthy climates around discipline. The first comes from a parenting website, the second from The Atlantic.

Creative Child – The Messages Behind Discipline

The Atlantic – No Spanking, No Time Outs, No Problems

The common message coming through both articles is accentuating and praising the behaviour we want to see, rather than seeking to punish the behaviour we don’t want. Ultimately, I believe that we have to have both a short and long term perspective. When there is behaviour that is inappropriate, it needs to be dealt with/ redirected in the short term. However, we also need to have in mind the far more significant long term desire to have our children grow up to be self-directed and self disciplined – in other words, to do right and to behave in ways that are fair, reasonable and in both their own and others’ best interests by choice and free will – not because of bullying conditioning, fear or punishment.

The latter article is not only interesting in its own right. It’s a measure of how emotive these issues are and how much emotional baggage is attached related to people’s own childhood and upbringing that the comments section has so many responses and many of them express strong emotions. This is even the case from grown adults who were victims of cruel and bullying punishment and discipline as children. Their emotions are clear from their comments and some clearly have carried scars and mental harm long in to adulthood.

Whether we are parents or educators responsibility for a child is a massive and weighty responsibility that we must take very seriously. Our words and actions towards the child will have a significant impact on the adult they will be later. In these circumstances, we must always be reflective, candid and careful to make ourselves well informed, to hold ourselves accountable and to take our duty very seriously. We’re not perfect. We will have days we get it right and days we make mistakes. However, our children deserve that we are always striving to be better, to guide them better to the right behaviours in ways that nourish, enrich and equip them. And, as I’ve said on many occasions the least starting point is – do no harm.

NDTV – No Kidding

Well well, I just found this – didn’t know it was still out there on the internet.

It’s an episode of NDTV’s ‘No Kidding’ hosted by Seema Chandra, called “How to Handle Bullies” in which i was interviewed. Watching it again after 6 years I found myself saddened that in so many ways the same debates are still going on and not too much has really changed.

NDTV – No Kidding – How to Handle Bullies

There’s no question that we still have a very long way to go if we are to make our schools more empathic places where children’s first inclination is to support and back each other up, rather than to attack, undermine and put down.

Paulo Coelho – Facts on Bullying

Bestselling writer, Paulo Coelho shares some awful statistics on bullying. I agree with him that whilst the data relates to USA, it can be extrapolated with minor variations to every education system in the world;

Paulo Coelho Blog Post

To me, what is key to addressing these issues is that we must not be looking to simply paper over the issues or address symptoms, but rather must work to change the culture of schools and the environment within which children grow up so that the issues that create bullies and victims are addressed at the root.

Bullying – Is It Taken Seriously Enough?

This is a very interesting article that looks at the current state of the debate on bullying in the American education system. It’s interesting not only because of what it shows in terms of what’s happened there, but also for the reflections it provokes on our own responses to how we deal with the issue of bullying in Indian schools;

Huffington Post Education Article on Bullying

Do we also see overt or covert expectations that bullying is a ‘fact of life’, to be expected and impossible (or even undesirable(?)) to eliminate?

Bullying – Useful Resources

Here’s the link to a whole lot of articles and materials on countering bullying in schools from the ASCD ‘Whole Child’ site:

Whole Child Blog – Bullying Resources

Bullying – Module for Teachers

By luck I chanced upon this great resource – a teachers’ module from the American Psychological Association packed full of useful information on this vital topic. It also provides a number of links to further material:

APA Module for Teachers on Bullying

(There are also a number of other high quality teacher modules on various topics: APA Modules for Teachers)

%d bloggers like this: