Hurting the Ones You Love


Putting others down to raise ourselves up is, in my view, one of the most invidious forms of bullying. But, we’ve got a problem that needs to be called out – young people’s environment today is full of it.  It’s doing enormous harm and hurt, but nobody’s supposed to say anything about it.

As far as I can tell a big part of it has come out of American culture alongside cultural icons like WWE wrestling. In this pseudo sport, athletes (sic) who are supposedly friends turn on each other, cause each other physical pain and injury and this is all supposed to be terribly entertaining and fun.

It’s part of a major theme of American entertainment culture sold to young people over the last 25 years or so that, I believe deliberately bends and distorts friendship, loyalty and other positive aspects of human relations. And then people wonder why, in parallel we have a generation of young people who’ve grown up more needy, more flaky and vulnerable, more lonely and lacking in human closeness than any before.

There are some particularly sickening aspects of this phenomenon. One of the very worst is “the roast”. When I was growing up i was always taught that good comedy laughs with people, and not at them – that laughing at people was not clever, kind or reflecting positively on the perpetrator. However, the roast manipulates these norms and principles horribly. They take place usually on TV. A specific person is treated as the Guest of Honour (but there’s no honour in this) and is subjected to a barrage of jokes made at them, at their expense and this is intended to entertain the event’s wider audience. We even now have a President of America who was the subject of one such MTV channel roasts (he’s also paraded as part of a stupid, purile storyline in WWE (because that’s what friends do to each other).

The idea is that somehow, personal and brutal humour is the modern equivalent of jousting and the strong person can ‘suck it up’, taking criticism and insult with a smile on their face. This is like friends putting on velvet gloves before punching each other in the face.

Another media manifestation is the Punk’d style of hidden camera shows where practical jokes are played on people by their friends. The more the trick entails a betrayal of friendship and trust, apparently the more entertaining it is. If the person being punk’d shows themselves to be human, hurt, ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated so much the better. I’ve often wondered what the conversations are like that happen just after these humiliations. In most countries it must be necessary for the person to sign something that permits the TV company to broadcast the incident. In all honesty, if I was on the receiving end I wouldn’t sign. No amount of waffle about 15 minutes of fame, popularity etc. would win me over. They would have been wasting their time and expense. But, sadly, the pressure is obviously applied so cleverly that many people are lured by their 15 minutes of fame, just as Andy Warhol predicted 50 years ago.

My belief has always been that friendship is a relationship that is especially important for children and young people growing up today – one that provides something different to relationships within the family. It’s a relationship in which it should be safe for youngsters to explore their views on the world, with someone who has their best interests at heart, where there is strong trust, caring and loyalty. It should be a relationship that children feel can be relied upon, to fall back on for advice, help and support in dealing with life’s challenges and uncertainties.

Instead, I fear that all that all too often what we’re getting is relationships that appear to be supportive and protective, but are in fact the environments within which young people’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses are most abused. Around nine years ago i was so alarmed by what I was seeing that I took the support and guidance of our school clinical psychologist and counselors to write an article to address myself to parents and particularly to students aged around 9 – 12. What we were seeing was an almost incessant needling and digging by children in to each other’s vulnerabilities. Children who claimed to be friends were engaged in almost continuous insults and innuendo about whatever were their greatest weaknesses or vulnerabilities. One child might be carrying some excess weight, another had a mother who didn’t buy him/ her the top designer label clothes, another had parents who were separating, yet another had given an unfortunately wrong and thoughtless answer to a class question in Maths. Whatever makes you most vulnerable is most likely to be known by your friends. However, when friendship starts to consist of parading each others’ vulnerabilities in public for ridicule and belittling there has to be something very wrong.

We had concluded from research and interviews with children, parents and teachers that often this was a deflection method to protect themselves from feeling vulnerable. In other words – I tear you down in order to feel good (or at least a little less bad) about myself. The best analogy might be a playground seesaw. in order to raise me up, you must be pushed down – as though there was only so much self esteem to go around.

Just like the victim in a roast, the child being ridiculed was supposed to show resilience, hide all evidence that the comments and criticisms hurt and, if really ‘playing the game’ to come back with equal vigour in the battle. This may have been the face children were showing each other. However, teachers, parents and school councilors were seeing the evidence of the harm and damage done as children were repeatedly being betrayed by those they trusted, or feeling guilt because they had betrayed their friends (or both!) This was not victimless fun, but a massive erosion of self worth and self esteem.

In the most extreme of cases, I’ve had a group of 16 year old boys admit to me that amongs their friend group they had instituted ‘safe words’ – words that individuals could speak with an unwritten rule that when spoken, then this meant enough was enough. These young people were hurting each other so much and with such disregard for each other’s health and wellbeing – all while convincing themselves and others that they were friends. The safe words came in to play when an individual couldn’t take the emotional battering any more, when they were likely to act violently towards their friend or themselves or take some other drastic action.

This is tragic in the extreme and a gross distortion of anything that can be called friendship. This wasn’t a little harmless leg pulling amongst people who cared for each other. This was risk taking on a gross scale, mirroring the worst of TV and media habits where people appear to bate each other, probe the festering wounds of each others weaknesses, vulnerabilities and shortcomings in ways that make them look big, clever, witty and popular. The one who is ready to risk their friendships most is the coolest?!

What an awful state to have reached, and what terrible prices are being paid in the alienation, loneliness and low self esteem of our young people today. What can be done about it? Well, for starters, those who believe in a healthier, more wholesome and uplifting/ empowering model for friendship need to model this for young people.

More needs to be done to counteract the negative messages of the media and entertainment. We need to put more emphasis on social and emotional learning, the development of emotional intelligence, empathy and caring. Above all, we need to convey the messages to children about how they have choices about whether to build another up or pull them down, the implications of both and the understanding that self esteem is not a zero sum game. If my friend’s self esteem is emboldened today, then he or she is more likely and available to boost mine tomorrow when i need it, going in to a difficult conversation with an adult, a sports event or an exam.

Less emphasis on anti-bullying campaigns and more focus on building strong, resilient emotionally intelligent children who place as much importance on holding up their friends and peers as on boosting themselves up. It’s not always an easy world in which to grow up and our children need all the help they can get. In the words of the theme tune of long running and ever popular comedy, ‘Friends’;
“I’ll be there for you
When the rain starts to pour
I’ll be there for you
Like I’ve been there before
I’ll be there for you
‘Cause you’re there for me too”



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.  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.

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

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