In the local newspapers in Winnipeg, we have had a run of stories in the last few years about whether schools are doing enough to prevent bullying (I’m putting a caveat on that link. The Wikipedia entry summarizes the theories about bullying but it doesn’t evaluate them, and it tends to dramatize the problem – which what this entry is about). I am not going to argue that real bullying should be tolerated. I am arguing that people are being dishonest or gullible about the alleged crisis. We are seeing people promoting a crisis for their own purposes, and we are seeing these fears resonate with adults who then demand, in essence, that the government take steps to make everyone – even other children – treat their children nicely. We are witnessing adults trying to convince themselves and other adults that they are concerned, loving and respectable parents.
The concern with bullying is relatively new, and the language used to discuss it tends to be dramatic. In England the new Children’s Commissioner used the occasion of a teen-on-teen homicide as a platform for advocacy against bullying, as reported in Children’s czar warns of huge leap in bullying in the Observer, the magazine of the Guardian. This surely is a rhetorical mistatement. Children have not become intrinsically more violent or aggressive in the last two generations, and it hard to detect any changes in society that would have made children more violent aggressive – unless you believe in the evil powers of comic books, pulp fiction, satanic rock, television, violent toys, and video games.

There are laws, rules and structures of authority that deal with this, although the application and enforcement of the law in the schoolyard, among children is problematic. The police don’t want to lay charges for schoolyard scuffles, and in Canada at least, children under the age of 12 can’t be charged. There are school rules and disciplinary programs, and the teachers and adults who run the schools have the basic power to intervene to protect kids from bullies if they are able to spend more time supervising the kids. The advocates of more measures against bullying are therefore talking about new laws, new rules and more effective supervision and intervention. They are also talking about wide concept of bullying that includes verbal psychological intimidation. It will require massive resources. It will also force teachers and school authorities to take sides, to protect one child from intangible harassment, which is going to provoke huge conflicts with the parents of children who will feel that their children are being unfairly stigmatized and stifled for normal childish behaviour within the traditions of their family, their neighbourhood, their class, and their culture.
A program to intervene more effectively against bullying could be justified as a conservative program to promote public safety and discipline though enforcing civility by a strict and formally respectful standard of conduct in schools and the workplace, combined with an agenda of teaching children to conform to respectable standards. A liberal analysis is slightly more complex, but classical liberals should endorse a view of basic rights that favours protecting victims from physical harm and intimidation at the expense of restricting the freedom of more aggressive children. Modern liberals, sensitive to cultural diversity and personal identity may pause before intruding on the traditional child-rearing practices of immigrant and minority cultures, but protecting children from real harm seems to be an important goal. Liberals might favour an educational approach rather than a legalistic approach.
While the movement against bullying can be supported within various different approaches, the leaders of the movement and the principal spokespersons promote it from the perspective of the behavioural sciences. Their argument is ostensibly scientific, utilitarian and therapeutic. They would consider their approach to be child-centered. I might just note that child-centered psychology is not recognized as a branch of psychology, but the term child-centered has been embraced happily in many professions and businesses to brand an approach to child care, education, psychology, and even divorce law.
Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus is among the leaders in discovering and writing about this problem. Amazon lists books of his academic writing, as far back as 1978. In 1993 he published an English language book Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do (Understanding Children’s Worlds). His publisher describes him: “Dan Olweus is Professor of Psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway, and it is acknowledged as a leading world authority on problems of bullying and victimization. He has conducted research in this area for over 20 years and is regarded as the “Founding Father” of research on bully/victim problems. He has published many books and articles on the topic.” In England, Peter K. Smith et al produced the ponderous Violence in Schools: The Response in Europe in 2001 and the shorter Bullying in Schools : How Successful Can Interventions Be? in 2004. In America, several writers came out with books during the ‘1990’s, and child discipline guru Barbara Coloroso weighed in with the popular The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander : From Preschool to High School–How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence in 2002. Coloroso’s book seems to have been especially influential in moving bullying from a concern for a minority of sensitive and progressive teachers and parents to a concern for a wider constituency. As the movement became popular, it has also diversified by finding new victims to rescue and new forms of abuse to condemn. Rosalind Wiseman looked at social bullying among girls in Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. The popular books tend to recycle simplistic theories of abuse and victimization and to promote simplistic jargon-riddled analysis of complex behaviours. However, popular books are widely promoted and publicized and the jargon of popular psychology tends to find its way into popular culture. It becomes common knowledge and people accept it without even thinking about it.
The idea that memories of childhood events can affect adult feelings, thoughts and actions is not new. The idea that routine and ordinary childhood events (as opposed to exposure to war, violent crime, the death of parents and loved ones, famine, disease and catastrophe) regularly produce emotional trauma and lasting psychological harm is newer. The idea that minor set-backs can cause significant and lasting harm is newer still. These theories of abuse, trauma and victimization seems to have been rapidly accepted by many adults without serious debate or discussion. They ought to be controversial. There are a couple of levels of complexity in the literature. There is a core of human experience and a body of clinical observations on the subjects of development and learning, but much of developmental psychology consists of working models and theories. Developmental psychologists have different theories about whether children are naturally aggressive, or whether they learn it from parents and peers. Some theories focus on bringing out the innate creativity and goodness of children. Advocates of these theories favour teaching children to not be aggressive, while letting them learn to be themselves. They have theories about communicating positively and non-repressively while denying children gratification of their wishes. They have faith in the power of adults and teachers to shape behaviour and teach values and skills, and they tend to believe that children respond to reason and kindness. The question of whether the operating model of child-centered psychology holds has not been answered. The model itself seems to regard children as the original noble savages – intrinsically good until spoiled by social influences and deformed by trauma and sounds suspiciously ideological. When these theories are translated into popular writing, child-centered psychology becomes a kind of faith in the intrinsic goodness of children and in the power of being nice, combined with a dread of the ill-effects of hurting a child’s feelings.
The modern concern with bullying fits in well with the modern ideologies of victimization. It also fits with the modern trend to deal with moral and social issues within a therapeutic context – to describe misconduct and injustice in terms of psychological pathology which might yield to treatment. Labelling the disappointments and set-backs of childhood as victimization and labelling competition and aggression as abuse radically redefines the experiences of life. These theories tend to reject the perspective that children can be expected to be resilient against the normal stresses and shocks of life, of which there are many, to learn to resist injustice where possible and to learn that life isn’t fair.
Child-centered theories don’t seem to deal with the fact that children are needy, greedy, and pretty good at getting adults to provide for their real and perceived needs. Childhood is easy if there is food, shelter, discipline, socialization and affection. We love our parents. They take care of us. We spend time with them, we learn language, we learn the rules of culture. We can play with them a little, but they aren’t great playmates – low energy, busy finding food and shelter, busy with other children, busy at the business of being adults. We spend time with other children, and create our own space. We discover our own strength. We make our own alliances around play, status, sex and we have less use for our our parents. We become aware of race, class, sex, inequality, intelligence, strength, appearance, talent. We discover that many other people will abuse and manipulate us, given the chance, and that many social and economic systems in our society leave us chronically vulnerable to exploitation and injustice.
We can hide from our limitations by blaming society for being unfair, for not recognizing us, for repressing our selfhood, for stripping our self-esteem. We can blame demons, devils, evil spirits, or fate, or any damned thing we want. We can cope with music, drugs, sex, attitude, art, hard work, prayer, sports, religion, patriotism, political activity, conformity. We survive. Growing up is hard.
Bullying is unfair but common and apparently entirely natural. Children explore their own power and status and establish their own hierarchies spontaneously and may well do so regardless of all adult efforts to make them play nicely. Bad behaviour isn’t a diagnostic category in modern psychiatry or psychology except to the extent that it can be associated with a major mental illness or a personality disorder. If scientific mental health professionals aren’t labelling bad behaviour as sick, who is? Generally, a few ambitious academics, and a bunch of ambitious writers who have identified the sensitivities and fears of modern parents.
Nick Cohen presents a perspective on child-centered issues in an article – Olympic ideals flouted – also in the Observer magazine, in the Guardian Online. It starts with some observations about sponsorships to sustain the 2012 Olympics in London, and moves out to make observations on how modern middle class parents are obsessed with their children:

I can’t think of a more potent political concern than modern worries about children. It lies behind the MMR mania, the paedophile panic and the fear that impels parents to clog the streets with cars on the school run. Middle-class couples have become the servants of what Will Self called ‘the kidocracy’. They are having fewer children later. Everything has to go well with birth and upbringing because there’s little chance of producing replacements. No spares are available.
The parents have a powerful reason to expect everything to go well. For the first time in history, the unexpected death of a child is a freak event rather than an everyday unhappiness. In 1900, 142 out of every 1,000 children died before their first birthdays. In 2000, six out of every 1,000 children died before their first birthdays. Grasp the full implications of those figures and you will know the basis of half the scare stories in the papers. Threats to the health of a precious child, however remote, have become intolerable. (Notes: MMR refers to the furor in England over Measle, Mumps and Rubella Vaccination. Will Self is a colourful and controverial English writer. I can’t find the kidocracy reference in anything online though.)

The idea that we can make our children happier by controlling other children is frankly tiresome. First of all, people are inconsistent and obliviously self-centered about it. Which parents think that their children have problems? Why is it always about someone else’s children? Adults are unwilling to accept that what we value about our own children – their energy, initiative and creativity – presents itself as obnoxious behaviour in other people’s children. Parents are fine with aggression and competition as long as their kids are successful or at least happy with the activity. It becomes a problem when our kids fail or want to quit. Then we get concerned about fair play and equal opportunities, and some of us obsess and want to try to make our kids happy by changing the situation and making it nicer. Parents don’t even think that kids are often unhappy with their parents, and can’t live with their parents’ eternal need for them to be busy and happy. It is also just a confused, wooly idea that confuses adult concerns over the happiness of their children with concerns over direction of society and the safety of children. It addresses seemingly accessible goals – controlling the behaviour of (other people’s) children and protecting (our own) children from harm but it it simultaneously redefines the kind of things that are being controlled in the elusive terminology of feelings.
The fact that we think we can insulate children from feeling bad demonstrates the sheer hopeless vanity of the venture. Parents are afraid to discipline and control their children. How exactly do they expect teachers and school authorities to make other people’s children act nicely? It would be nice if the law could force people to care for our children and take care of them and make them feel valued and respected but really …