We’re Overboard on Bullying

Like most parents and as a former teacher, I’m concerned about bullying. Mainly, I’m worried that we’re worrying about it so much. The words of Barbara Coloroso, an American educator who’s one of our sanest voices on parenting and education, come to mind. “Rescue, rescue!” is her sarcastic reference to the desperate attempts of adults to save their kids from, well, what exactly? We all agree that we need to do what we reasonably can to protect our children from physical and moral danger. But in trying to protect every last kid from taunting, from falling off his bike, from having to actually walk to her school, we’ve surely gone over the edge.

It is amazing that, in among the safest parts of the world, affluent North Americans  are the most obsessed about safety. Sometimes, this is to our credit as a society. But too often, we mistake discomfort for genuine danger, and give psychiatric labels to the normal changes and chances of life. It’s as if we think our privilege extends to the point where no child of ours should ever experience difficulty.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not advocating carelessness or the law of the jungle. But, for example, Ontario’s Safe Schools Act and the millions to implement it do strike me as another example of what we were calling the “add-on curriculum” when I started teaching back in the 1980s. Schools have difficulty doing what they do best when they are responsible for everything, for what families and neighbourhoods and clubs and congregations and a child’s own resiliency were once expected to take care of.

I don’t mean to slag the initiative. I know it comes from noble intent and intelligent people. But imagine (he dreamily noted) if schools were funded so that student-teacher ratios were dramatically lowered, if class sizes never exceeded 12-15 in primary, or 20 in intermediate grades. A lot of the problems of bullying – and of illiteracy, and of poverty, and of alienation – would quickly be lessened if the bullies weren’t cloaked in the invisibility of large, factory-like schools where teachers have all they can do to maintain a shadow of order. Bullying is generally a symptom of a larger problem, and crowded schools is one of them.

The attempt to end bullying is also a symptom of a culture of fear, and our social compulsion to control. When this is applied to children beyond a reasonable level, its results are less dramatic but even more harmful than the ill we are trying to treat. We risk, in overprotection, producing children who are convinced of their victimhood, their need for protection. Kids are worth our attention, but they are also worthy of respect for their resourcefulness, not to mention the resources allocated to the schools that work with them.