Their heritage; not their doing

Reflecting on my book launch, I am reminded of the saying that it is better to have too much than not enough if you host an event. That may be so, but to be honest, I am looking forward to the day when I’ll be short of books.

After having sent at least thirty direct invitations to politicians and every organization I could find that has anything to do with children, health and education, as well as countless flyers and posters in book shops and other places around the city, and on the social networks and by informing the papers – and I thank the local paper for coming to talk to me and writing about my book and the launch – I believed that the topics of eating disorders and bullying (being as popular as they are) would have generated more interest.

Okay, I am not a marketer by nature and I am sure I could have done things better. One lady told me that, despite my efforts, she could not find some basic information, like the price of the book, anywhere. So, I will try to make such things more clear next time and that may have played, but I can’t help wondering whether the turn-out would have been greater if my book had been about zombies or super heroes.

One bookshop owner outright told me that he didn’t think my book was a children’s book “considering the topics” – not suitable for exactly those children who are living with it every day, who are acting like bullies or being victims of it; the same children who are starving themselves or over eating as a result of the judgmental environment.

This attitude is akin to schools, after finally acknowledging that bullying is a real problem and not something that has to do with “kids being kids”, now taking the problem out of the hands of the kids altogether and instead teaching about it – as if it is a lesson children have no clue about and the all-knowing adults will show them.

Nothing is further from the truth. The children do understand, possibly better than the adults. I compare this to film ratings, which were brought in to “protect the children”. So now we have films, for example those that are made to warn young girls against the sex slave trade, being kept away from those potential victims for “their protection”.

The school principal in my book refers to the school policies on more than one occasion with the message that  “we are doing everything we can to stop bullying”. I will discuss these policies later. For now, let’s debunk the basic idea: Who is “we”? She means the adults, but if adults were indeed capable of stopping bullying without involving the children, and they just need to “teach” it, then why wasn’t it stopped a long time ago?

Toward the end of the story, the children openly disagree and demand to be heard during a parent meeting, because “It’s about us, isn’t it?” To her credit, the principal then begins to realize that she made assumptions and she decides that her place is to be there for the children first – not the system – and she is willing to stand beside them against those who enforce the official policies.

Some issues came up during the presentation, namely the high rate of bullying in New Zealand when compared to other countries and the use of play-acting (role play) to teach victims of bullying to stand stronger.

I do want to address both these issues, but I cannot do that in this post or it would get too long, so I will just reflect back on the evening itself for now and return to both these issues and the discussion about the effect of the (in the previous post mentioned) discrepancy between what schools say and how they act, as well as on the problem with the above mentioned policies in the next posts, which I will write in quick succession.

I should start by thanking the representatives from the KIVA program for coming and for their initiative to starting this (in Europe highly successful) program in some Kiwi schools.

Briefly, the KIVA program, which was developed in Finland by the university if Turku, takes a new approach to bullying: instead of targeting the bullies or the victims, it targets the bystanders and the class environment and in doing so, it avoids blaming individual children; it makes all children together responsible for their collective behaviour, changing the norm of what is okay and introducing this to children from young onward. This helps create the atmosphere of tolerance most schools only teach in words, but are incapable of practicing. In KIVA schools, the topic is not kept away from children; it is discussed with them instead of treating them as if they are too young to talk about it.

This is exactly what Soup and Bread also promotes – and I wish I had known about the program earlier. The difference is that the KIVA program developed the idea from observing children in schools, while my view came from type psychology. But even the KIVA program, having the connection to the university and to the education department, has trouble getting support from those in government and the established schools.

Nevertheless, its success in Europe is evidence to the notion that things can get better if the environment changes; if the bystanders and the schools change their standards of normal and use positive reinforcement to establish the new norm.

Take the example of gender attitudes. In the past men/boys often reinforced violent behaviour; boys would show bravery by tormenting ‘dangerous’ animals and their friends would applaud this, which is similar to bullying. This sort of behaviour was considered a gender norm and boys who showed fear or kindness were called names, while those who tormented were “brave” – we still see this with soldiers.

But today, the social networks are full of examples of guys who go out of their way to rescue animals and are kind to them, and there is a lot of positive reinforcement for such behaviour (not just from women). So the norm has changed. Men are allowed to push their baby in a pram today, without being laughed at.

The same attitude change is possible were it concerns bullying (and war), but it requires a norm change and this change, as explained in the last post, happens slowly.

Yet it can only happen if the issues are being discussed, not if people keep them secret.

Most people are like Vonnie is at the start of the story; if there is no personal interest they tend to stand by, stay out of the way, and not get involved with the problem on a grand scale. That, too, is a perfectly natural response, because we cannot get involved with everything, and every personality type has their own special interests.

Some people outright declare that their own children are brought up right and that is why they don’t have that problem. Since those who state this so boldly are usually parents of young children that have not yet gone through their teens, I tend to think to myself “Just wait”. But these are expressions of moral judgment about what the society considers right and wrong (norms), just like the idea that men have to be tough instead of kind, and this subliminal message about upbringing induces guilt in the parents whose child is having trouble. Such bold accusations are usually not expressed to hurt others; they are expressed to justify their own parenting, but it is exactly such judgment (whether intended or not) that reinforces the bullying behaviour.

Another issue addressed in the book is that kids don’t talk about it; they don’t tell the adults that they are being bullied. This happens for a similar reason as when sexual abuse victims are threatened not to tell (or else), yet with bullying there is less of an explicit threat and more another dose of moral judgment – they are told that it is weak, cowardly and wrong to tell on your classmates, because “we are all part of this community”.

So one of the first things that needs to happen on a grand scale, is that children are told that certain things simply should never be kept secret, no matter what anybody says and no matter whether that anybody has a whole series of important sounding letters behind their name.

That brings me to all those experts who did not come. No doubt, they had better things to do than come to a book launch of some unknown writer and each of those organizations has their own philosophy and agenda, which may be different than mine.

That is fine where it concerns institutions, but what about the politicians? Every one of them responded, all with an identical message, issued by their secretary, saying they were away on that day. Again, that is fine. Why would a politician come to the event of one person, after all?

I never expected them to come.

But politicians get paid for representing all the people, not just those at the top. They are supposed to listen to all voices – and I did invite them with the explanation of the current problems and a brief outline of the alternative. If it were me who was a politician for education, children or health, and I cared about those topics, I would want to know everything about the topic I would have to make decisions about. I would read every article I could find, especially those with alternative views – as I do for my philosophy book. I would worry that I’d miss something, because my decisions would affect people’s lives, so I’d have asked somebody else to go in my stead if I had other commitments. Failing that, I would at the very least have asked for more information when I received the invite.

But politicians, like most other people, only see what is directly in front of them and they are usually not aware of the long-term consequences of their decisions. The big picture gets ignored in favour of the immediate effect that can be seen.

Of course, every decision politicians make, they make for the future. Now, I don’t expect politicians to be able to understand every topic they have to deal with in detail, but if they ignore the voices that warn for the consequences they cannot see – not even acknowledge the possibility – then the negative results are on their shoulders. If it becomes accepted that the current approach to bullying was making things worse – and it will – then the current politicians can be held responsible for every child that is hurt between now and then as a result of this lack of interest. I never asked them to take my word for it, but I did ask them to listen.

Schools teach responsibility – they teach children the accepted meaning of the word – but take every responsibility away from them. At least one book shop owner thinks that books that want to involve children in thinking about consequences, are not appropriate books for kids. And politicians make decisions based on immediate voting results without taking responsibility for the long-term. So, despite everybody shouting “responsibility”, bullies do not have to take any responsibility for their actions, and those who are supposed to teach or inform children, do not have to take responsibility for telling the victims that this is so, and those who make decisions for the future of the nation can simply retire after four years without having to take responsibility for the consequences.

So what then are we teaching the children but not to take the idea of responsibility too seriously?

If we cannot even hold the current decision makers responsible for their decisions, then each new generation will keep suffering for what is their heritage, not their doing.

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