According to the Dictionary: Schooling or Education

Although I have many times mentioned it as part of other discussions, I would once more like to come back to the role of the school with regard raising children and educating them, because this remains a topic of confusion.

I recently came across two articles in which upset or criticism was expressed about what schools tell children. One of those discussions was about “sexual education” and specifically the idea that the school allowed guest speaker to inform children that there was a good chance they might be homosexual. A second discussion was about dress codes and whether religious head wear should be banned to avoid inequality. The objection was that the child with the religious head wear was given special privileges if head wear for non-religious reasons was not allowed.

The point of both discussions was that the parents did not agree with what the school was telling the children about the topic. In the first case, the parents didn’t actually have anything against homosexuality, but they didn’t want their child told that certain superficial behaviour (such as playing with dolls) indicated that they might be – quite right. The second was about cultural diversity versus diversity of opinion.

These objections are equivalent to objections and discussions about schools making children stand up and salute a flag, schools teaching evolution theory (which religious parents don’t accept) and schools telling war stories with the message that soldiers are heroes (which pacifist parents disagree with), as well as those issues I have mentioned before, such as when schools tell children they have mental disorders if they can’t behave like their peers, or when schools criticize what children eat or tell them what their parents are supposed to feed them.

In short, the (public) school is instilling messages into the children’s minds, which some parents object to. And although I understand the sentiment of the writers of those articles, I believe they may have overlooked the difference between schooling and education.

Today, terminology such as “education” and “life-long learning” are considered positives. The vast majority of parents, teachers and politicians will tell you that they think children should go to school, because they need an education. The UN has made a moral law that ‘guarantees’ children “the right to an education”, which is made compulsory and equated with going to school. (see my article on this topic: Education and Human Rights). Thus, we talk about “the education system” when we mean schools.

Using these two words interchangeably results from  adults internalizing what they are told as children and then never questioning it again. I call this “The Santa Claus effect”. If you raise children with the belief that Santa Claus exists, they will not question it unless somebody starts hinting at the possibility that it may not be true. Usually, at a certain age, kids start informing each other or parents tell them, but if this was not the case – like it is when an entire culture is immersed in a view and schools and the media keep repeating it – they would grow up believing that Santa Claus is real.

And so parents, teachers and the media all repeat that going to school means getting an education and if the children never hear anything else, they will pass on this same message to their own children or students when they grow up.

Most teachers, no doubt, go into teaching, because they want to help children learn – they want to educate them, and most parents will send their kids to school, because they want them to learn. But it is exactly that confusion that lies at the basis of these disagreements between schools and parents.

So, let us literally quote the dictionary  – Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and I have used both the Ninth (1989) and the Tenth (2001) edition – and with apologies for any repeat from previous articles and in my young adult novel In the Real World.

The dictionary starts by listing the following synonyms, which are regularly used in relation to schools:

“teach, instruct, educate, train, discipline and school all mean to cause to acquire knowledge or skill”

Then it separates them:

to teach  is the most general and refers to “any manner of imparting information or skill so others may learn”

to instruct is “methodical or formal teaching”

to educate is “attempting to bring out latent capabilities”  In the 2001 edition, this is modified to “the development of the mind”

to train “stresses instruction and drill with a specific end in view”

to discipline is “subordinating to a master for the sake of controlling”  In the 2001 version this is modified to “training in habits of order and precision”

to school is “training or disciplining, esp. in what is hard to master or to bear” In the 2001 editions “or to bear” has been omitted. And the first entry definition given for the verb “school” is “to teach or drill a specific knowledge or skill”

Just to confirm, for those who object to my choice of dictionary, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) says about “to school”:

  1. To educate or train (a person, the mind, etc.); to make wise, skilful, or tractable by training or discipline; to be educated in a particular belief, habit, outlook; to educate (a child) at a school; to provide (a person) with a formal education, typically at a school, college, or university.

More modern dictionaries, like the New Zealand Oxford  (2008) and some online equivalents, say:

to teach is “to give systematic information to (a person) or about (a subject or skill)”

to instruct is to “teach, direct, command or inform”

to educate is to “give intellectual, moral or social instruction as a formal or prolonged process”  

to train is to “teach a specific skill by practice”

to discipline is “mental, moral or physical training” or “control or order exercised over people”

schooling refers to “training or discipline” or “education at school”

So the more modern the dictionary, the more there is a tendency to relate schooling to knowledge and the mind, and education to schools, which is evidence of  language being interpretable and subject to fashions, even within the era. With that in mind, I also looked at the word origins:

According to the OED, the origin of “to school” is to reprimand, scold, admonish (obs.). To tell (a person) he or she is wrong about something; to dictate to (a person); to criticize, correct, ‘lecture'”.

And the etymology dictionary (online) agrees with this. The origin (around the mid 15th century) of “school” as a verb meant “to educate; to reprimand, to discipline”
And to educate, this dictionary says, stems from the same period and means to “bring up (children), to train”. The root of this word, “educe” means to “bring out or develop from latent or potential existence, which is therefore in agreement with the Merriam-Webster.

So, even if the word meanings change a little, there is a clear focus difference. “Education” means bringing out latent capabilities in the learner or to develop and bring up; in other words, the focus is on the child. It wants to raise an individual who can develop their own natural talents and skills as good as possible and so be happy contributing to the greater whole (the society). “Education”, by its very definition, acknowledges that not every child is born with the same talents and its goal is to discover and nurture those inborn talents.

“Schooling” focuses on the skill or the outcome. The goal is to create an individual who can perform the end goal, who can benefit the needs of the society.

This is a subtle, but very important difference, and it is possible that the half of the population who are Js (who naturally equate the needs of the group with those of the individual) might protest and say that this difference is contrived.

Nevertheless, the role of schools is to create citizens that will fit in the society, that will not cause trouble and that will contribute to its needs. To allow too much individuality is in conflict with these needs. An established society does not want people questioning it, it wants them to endorse it.

As said before, societies cannot exist unless the majority of their members obey their rules. And how do you achieve that better than by instilling the beliefs in the members when they are too young to question it?

In principle, education doesn’t need schools and, possibly, schools don’t need to provide education, but an institution that does not teach any skills or values is more like a prison. So, schools (as state institutions) can provide education, but that does not mean that the words can be used interchangeably.

Schools, as said in Changing Beliefs, at times run ahead or behind the popular opinion, but it is their job to make children accept the beliefs of the society they represent, whether that society is a religious group or the state.

The views of the current rulers are instilled in children through schools, and in a democracy those are the beliefs of the mob – beliefs that change with fashions and depend for a great part on trends.

Thus, if the vast majority of people believe that evolution and homosexuality are wrong (as was the case less than a century ago), then that is what schools tell the children. If the majority suddenly goes overboard to the other extreme (and mob beliefs are seldom moderate), then schools will follow that trend.

Schooling can only happen in an institution; education is something parents can do just as well. So if you send your child to school, you have to understand that your own beliefs could be dismissed in favour of those the school holds. The alternative would be to educate your own children according to your own beliefs.

However, as said above, the “right to education” has been made into an obligation to send children to school – and some countries will threaten parents with prison if they are not willing to subject their kids to the beliefs of the state (through school).

In general, the more open-minded and tolerant a society is, the more it will allow its members a mind of their own. In doing so, each individual is likely to contribute to the collective in their own area of expertise, which, if all different talents are valued equally, means each can feel satisfied and respected.

A stable society tends to be lenient, but the moment a society starts weakening, it will try and enforce its own views – the weaker it feels, the more moralistic and dogmatic it becomes and individual needs and views are suppressed. This is true for any group (whether the society at large or a club or a school) and the less tolerant a society, the more it will enforce ‘education laws’.

The common belief (also instilled in most adults through schools and the media) is that these laws prevent child labour. But in most cases that was a convenient excuse that played on the emotions and guaranteed compliance without effort.

In short, education is not schooling; a law that makes going to school compulsory is not there for the sake of the children.

My advice to parents: If you have a choice, go talk to the schools and find out how open-minded they are. Do they really allow the individual child to have its own opinion without being penalized with lower grades or a scolding, or is it just a slogan the school has adopted, because the word “individual” is a popular hype word?

But one more word of caution. As I said before, whether somebody is inclined to accept the popular view or go against it, whether somebody is by nature an individual or not, depends on their personality type and there is no guarantee that your child is the same type as you are. So it is possible that if you, as a parent, object to schools and to uniformity of beliefs, that your child actually prefers that and feels safe in such an environment. If you make a fuss, you could be compromising your child.

Similarly, if you believe that making children fit in the society is a good thing, because they will later get a good job, make sure that you are not forcing a naturally individualistic child into something that stifles their inner self.

Because, regardless of what schools do, most parents aim to educate their children and that means allowing their natural personality type to develop according to their own needs.

Positive and Negative Discrimination

In this post – and I apologize for its length – I want to return to the psychology behind Soup and Bread.

During the launch, two issues were raised that I’d like to respond to. The first was a criticism to my view that using role play to teach the victims to learn how to behave differently, is victim blaming.  The second was the question why New Zealand, being a wealthy country that is not overpopulated, has such a high rate of bullying if compared to similar countries. In discussing these points, I will also address school policies and the effect of the in Changing Beliefs mentioned discrepancy between what we say and what we do.

Let me first respond to the criticism. The lady who mentioned it had been part of an acting group that went around schools to act out social issues – doing role play with children and discussing the results with them – which I think is wonderful idea. She did not agree with me, because from experience she knew that teaching children to take a different attitude does make a difference in how they react and how the bullies treat them.

In the story, Vonnie (the point of view character) observes Claire (the target of the bullies) cringing every time the bullies pay attention to her. Cringing is one of the natural responses people take when they sense danger and from experience Claire knows she is in danger every time the bullies come near her.  The school counselor, who believes that Claire is picked on because she cringes, takes her out of class every week to practice standing up to the bullies – doing role play to learn to take a different physical pose and so prevent being picked on.

Although I agree that taking a different physical attitude makes a difference in how the other party perceives you and thus the way they react, as well as making the victim stand a bit stronger, that was not really the point I was making.

Just as a reminder: every person has a personality (their inner self that remains the same; the person they refer to as “I”) and also many personas. A  persona is the social mask we wear; in different situations we put on a different mask (just like our clothes) – we do not behave at a fun fair as we would at a funeral; we do not behave at work as we would at home.

So, although Claire can act differently (put on a different persona) in a role play put up for that purpose, that does not mean she will still act that way when she is alone and the bullies appear, because the situation is different. During a role play she is not in real danger.

And sure, if she were to go to a totally new school, and on her first day put on that acted persona, it is possible that new bullies would not pick on her, because of it. But it is unlikely that changing her stance in an environment that already knows her will make such a difference.

But even if it did. Why should Claire have to put on an act every time she is at school? Why is it okay for those who naturally bond together to act themselves in the place where they spend almost a third of their days, but not for Claire? After all, the bullies do NOT get sent to the counselor to learn how to behave differently. Why does the counselor not ask the bullies to play-act being nice?

Or why does she not ask the class to reverse the roles to ‘teach’ the children not to bully? – They actually did an experiment in a school in the US once, in response to racial discrimination. The racist kids were given an armband to signify their being different, and the rest of the class was told to ignore them or laugh at them; they fell apart in no time.

Victims of bullying put up with being alone and being picked on for years, so why do counselors try and “teach” them how to get tough?

So the point I am making is that Claire cringes out of self-protection; she has a perfectly healthy and natural reaction to danger, no differently than turtles who pull into their shell, and this reaction is not the cause of the bullying; it is the effect of it. Yet, she gets told that she must not do that, because it is “not being tough”. The bullies do not get told to act differently, so implicitly, the message is that it’s Claire’s own fault that she’s bullied, because she cringes.

This constitutes a double bind. A double bind is a situation in which a person is stuck between two negatives. For example, if an adult tells a child to do something (or get scolded), but if the child does what it is told, it is never good enough, so they get scolded anyway. Whatever they do, the outcome is negative for them.

In this case, Claire is told that changing her posture will stop the bullying – but people cannot change their instinctive reactions at will or their inner personality by changing their outward behaviour, so it cannot work consistently, which results in the implication that it is her own fault, because the school “taught her”. Not only does Claire now get bullied by her classmates, but the adults make it worse.

Towards the end of the story, Claire slowly gets more self-secure and she does not cringe when she is in the company of those who do not bully her. So, she never needed to be taught to stand up straight or to stop cringing. She merely needed a tolerant and safe environment to make that change naturally. And that is why during a role play, the observers do see a change in attitude, but that does not take away from the point I was making: that telling Claire that things will change if she puts on an act, is victim blaming.

Some people may object to my comparison to racial discrimination, but that comparison is very accurate – the kids refer to an “inner skin colour” – except that (for the moment) being picked on for one’s psychological make-up is done unconsciously, because most people are not aware of the healthy inborn personality type differences.

When Michael Jackson bleached his skin and had a nose job, he more or less literally put on a mask (a persona), but that did not mean that his genetic make-up had become white. The mask does not change the inside person – neither does a man become a woman, simply by putting on a dress.

Schools only deal with superficial traits; they observe what people look like and how they act, and they expect all kids to be able to behave in the same manner, because they think that it is a result of learning.

But, as I said before, if people could change who they are inside at will or simply by changing superficial traits, we would have behaviourism and no individuality would be possible at all.

“Discrimination” is a buzz word of modern democracy, because it is supposedly the opposite of equality, so it is used in relation to gender and racial differences, and lately also to cultural or sexual orientation differences.

But what exactly is discrimination?

There are two definitions:

Discrimination in a negative sense, which refers to putting people at a disadvantage because of a personal difference (race, gender or personality type), such as not hiring a person for a job because of their skin colour or gender, or teachers not calling on a child in class, because they believe the child is dumb due to their personality or race.

Discrimination in a positive sense refers to the ability to notice and distinguish differences between objects – sensory discrimination, for example, like chefs who can distinguish minute variations in tastes.

Today, there is a tendency to deny that people have different skin colours by those who are paranoid about being politically wrong – which in turn is a result of everything being seen through a lens of negative discrimination. But denying that the differences exist is denying something special about people – denying their heritage. We need equal respect, not everybody identical.

In that light, negative discrimination is an inability to discriminate (positively) – to know what aspects are part of the context, which are connected – and an inability to individualize: stereotyping.

If you deny positive discrimination in an attempt to avoid negative discrimination, you achieve the exact opposite.

The answer to negative discrimination is to acknowledge the differences between people and to value them all equally (true equality) – to celebrate them, even.
Tolerance is the first step in that; to acknowledge and accept that not everybody is the same as you are.

The other issue, that of the terrible reputation New Zealand has when it comes to bullying, is closely related to this. Why does New Zealand have such a high incidence?

The first thing that came to my mind was the uniforms. School uniforms are very common here and they openly state that being an individual is not appreciated – all kids have to dress the same.

But what schools “teach” in words does not match the ‘lesson’ they teach in action: The children are told that being an individual is something to strive for, but if a child dares to dress like an individual, they get in trouble – the child gets stuck in a double bind.

If they protest this contradiction, they get told that “If everybody else can behave, then so can you” – another common expression that outright dismisses individuality.

We must not forget that if a person is by nature individualistic, then having to dress like everybody else is an insult to their person. Those who naturally want to belong to the group – be alike, which even without official decrees results in the fashion trends we see – cannot possibly imagine what that feels like, so they dismiss it.

School may have the best of intentions, thinking that putting all children in the same outfit makes for equality, but do they really think that the obese child in the tight skirt looks the same as their slender classmate? The children certainly don’t think so.

But I want to modify my position about uniforms a little, since some other countries, like Great Britain and South Africa, are also very keen on stiff uniforms, so that alone would not give New Zealand its bad reputation.

Somebody mentioned poverty, because New Zealand also has a high ratio of childhood poverty, but in my view, bullying is certainly not a problem of poverty; on the contrary, bullying is very prominent in private schools.

Uniforms do send another message: they reinforce strict “group” belonging. Every school has their own uniform; boys wear different clothes than girls – girls in New Zealand schools wear skirts (not track pants or shorts) and in some cases those skirts almost reach their ankles and are culturally biased (Scottish kilts).

Thus, the us versus them, the concept of in-groups, is openly encouraged with such displays and bullying is about in-groups.

As said in Changing Beliefs, groups need a certain amount of congruence between members in order to exist, and thus “the group” will try and enforce any behaviour (like dress) that emphasizes its own existence. Some people, by their very nature, will accept and adapt to outward displays of defining the group. But others do not feel it that way and they will resist. Some do that by rebelling or standing out and setting trends (so they create new groups and get followers), but others cannot make that adaptation, so they end up standing alone.

Bullying is therefore a result of “the group” defending itself against that what feels different, because individuality threatens the integrity of “the group”. As a result, bullying happens most in places where there is no greater adversary to stand up against together (such as a war, a tyrant, a hurricane, poverty). So the higher incidence of peer-directed bullying is seen in times of wealth and peace, because the natural instincts are still there.

But, because the inner need to either belong or stand out (the personality) cannot be seen, this need is expressed in clothing, behaviour, rituals and language and the more specific the group already is, the more the smaller in-groups need to find symbols to use against those they do not want.

The more pride for their club, the more inclined a group is to keep others out. Uniforms certainly enforce that, but even without uniforms, there will be in-groups – In Soup and Bread, both public and private schools are shown to have similar problems.

The other aspect of schools that reinforce bullying is that of competition. Vonnie’s school teacher says that “competition makes us perform the best we can”. This is a common assumption, and simultaneously contradicted with the message that “there are no winners or losers”.

But, of course, the naturally competitive children do think in winning and losing and they look for blame if they lose; the blame befalls the odd child out, the one who was already different (very often a child that is not naturally competitive or athletic), so that encouraging competition encourages bullying.

Neither is it true that competition makes “us” perform the best we can. That is a slogan used by those who need to be one-up. In team sports, sure, it is about winning and losing, but there are plenty of people who prefer personal improvement sports and have no desire to win over others and some need harmony instead of competition. Those differences are personality type differences and cannot be changed at will or by lessons.

I have nothing against healthy competition, such as in sports, but only if it involves those people who are by nature competitive or have a need for it. By forcing all children into competition, you put those who are not so inclined at a disadvantage.

In Australia, where I have seen a lot of negative intolerance and bullying at schools, there is a very strong “tall poppy” focus. They pride themselves on not tolerating “tall poppies”, which, they will tell you, are people who think they are better than others. After all, the Aussies pride themselves of their convict background and have a proud national interest in competitive sports.

As a consequence, in one primary school, this message was literally translated to putting down the kids with an interest in science (like Donny in the book). At eight and nine years old, these kids were told they were tall poppies and deserved to be “put in their place” by the group, who were footy fans. In short, they confused snotty attitudes (thinking you are better) with being different by nature (having different natural interests and talents), and used “tall poppies” as an excuse to oust individuality. As a result, “tall poppies grow best in those gardens that claim to have eradicated them”.

Like uniforms, such attitudes legitimize the notion that being different is being bad, and if this difference is something a person cannot change (like their gender, their race or their personality type) then it is no longer about the behaviour, but about the person, which makes it negative discrimination.

So, if a school claims “policies”, that constitute teaching kids to change their behaviour with the message that it will change who they are, then those policies are creating double bind situations and are in essence covert bullying. For more examples, see https://judgmenthurts.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/is-your-childs-school-passing-negative-moral-judgment-on-your-child/ 

And saying “we are doing all we can”, while only focusing on strategies directed at changing the victim, is selectively picking somebody to blame.

The solution: to actively make the diversity, the natural differences between people (including psychological differences) a source of pride; to change the collective attitude so that “the group” identifies itself by its diversity of members and its tolerance becomes a trait that signifies the group. That is why focusing on the environment itself and on the bystanders – as the KIVA program does – can work.

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.

Changing Beliefs

Group psychology looks at how the psyche (mind) of people is influenced by or influences the behaviour of the group and most theories rest on a few very basic and very old ideas:

  • true determinism: the idea that people’s lives are predetermined (usually by a deity or the stars) and that they have no self-determination
  • behaviourism: the idea that children are born blank slates and they are moulded into certain habitual behaviours by their environment ; the parents and teachers (the culture) forms the person
  • physical determinism: the idea that people’s inherited physical body (their DNA, their race, their gender or their brain) determines their behaviour, so that the nature of the parents predetermines a child’s development
  • complete free will: the idea that people are free to determine the cause of their lives, that every action is a choice, and that they can overcome learned behaviour, instincts, habits and emotions by will
  • combinations of any of the above:
  1. the most common current belief – which I have labelled “the brainstory theory” – is that people inherit their genes from their parents and that those determine how the brain works and the brain causes people to think and behave the way they do (their personality traits), but the environment can influence that brain with food, exercise, drugs (hormones) or lessons and so change the personality
  2. type theory; the idea that there are a limited number of psychological types of people (personalities). These type difference are inborn, a bit like gender differences, and they influence how people experience their environment (from the day they are born), but as these are tendencies and not specific traits we still have free will within our psychological limits – just like we can have free will within our physical limits: we have no wings, so we can’t fly, but that doesn’t stop us walking where we want

So the difference between the latter two is that the second believes that outward behaviour is not equivalent to the personality inside and that these inborn personality differences are not changeable by forces from outside.

So how does this relate to group psychology?

Well, these theories and beliefs are influenced by other beliefs. There was a time when everybody believed they were created by an omnipotent deity, so it was natural to accept determinism. The experts were trained by the church and they looked for (and consequently found) evidence of their belief in the people around them. But with The Enlightenment came the belief in a rational mind and free will, and as a result the belief about the cause of our behaviour changed to giving more power to the environment.

Thus, metaphysical beliefs – beliefs about existence itself, which give the members of a culture their reason to be alive and will therefore be defended at any cost – directly influence beliefs about what is considered true. This happens in all fields of knowledge, but the added problem with psychology is that those who make the theories about how people come to believe what they believe, are themselves immersed in the going metaphysical beliefs of their time – like how the determinists found evidence of God’s influence in what they observed, because that is what they expected.

Until the mid twentieth century, parents and teachers often had one acceptable standard of behaviour – schoolchildren wore uniforms, did not speak out of turn or get up from their seat unless told to – and if they didn’t abide by those rules they’d get chastised (in public). Pretty straight forward: the expectation was that people did not behave as individuals and that was enforced with moral rules, since moral rules are group rules about behaviour. The underlying belief may have been that such treatment would make them all identical on the inside as well – this was the time during which “behaviourism” as a theory was highly regarded – but nobody bothered to look; the focus was on what could be observed and not on inner personalities.

Things have changed in the last fifty years. There has been a social shift from behaviourism to believing in inner nature, a shift that resulted from the increasing popularity of evolution theories and DNA discoveries. The more science developed ways of looking inside a person, using brain scans and genetic research, the more everything a person did was attributed to their inherited genes.

This flourished with late twentieth century pshysicalism, but is today modified with the belief that the brain is pliable and that changing the external behaviour by will or the brain through hormones can change the personality inside – and this idea is spreading rapidly via mass media.

Today’s notion is that “we are all unique”, because we all inherit our special genetic make-up from our parents and we are all raised in different environments. Today  “individuality” is considered something to strive for instead of be ashamed of.

And yet, despite promoting this idea, there is the expectation that all people are identical in this need for individuality and that by looking into the brain of a person and comparing it to the brain of some others, the reason for different behaviour can be found and corrected.  Thus, there is discrepancy between the popular belief and the way the society expresses that, because it expects that all people are (or should be) identical; they still measure to one standard.

In the next post I will come back to the effect of this discrepancy on the children. The key here is to understand the reason for it: What is believed to be true changes all the time; knowledge isn’t permanent, ideas change and people look for evidence of what they already believe – science finds what it is looking for – and that happens unconsciously.

Of course, many viewpoints overlap at any one time – there are still plenty of people who believe in determinism (astrology is very popular) and most people will not yet accept that evolution isn’t as simple as survival of the fittest, which is becoming more evident with the study of epigenetics.

Every new idea takes time to grow. Most people won’t change their opinion until the public at large accepts an idea, which is usually brought about when the popular media keep repeating the messages, which reinforce each other and slowly more and more people accept them.

Because of this, popular ideas may seep into everyday life and education (which tells the children “what is true”) before being totally accepted, like when schools started teaching evolution theory instead of creationism in biology, but also held classes called “religious education”.

There are always going to be some people who are inclined to hold on what is and others who will jump on every new idea, so that what schools teach may be outdated in some aspects and the message they are sending in words (lessons) may not be congruent with the way the individual teachers behave (the subliminal expression of their moral beliefs and culture).

In short, moral and cultural beliefs are about people’s reason to be alive, so there is a tendency to try and make others accept those beliefs, because the alternative is doubt (about their very existence). This is why religions are so often the cause of war; they represent the need to defend an existential belief. At times, cultures totally isolate themselves and leave very little room for doubt in the individual members and at other times, cultures mix and there is more tolerance for different religions and rituals.

In Soup and Bread, the school is a public school in a time of cultural mixing (our current society), so it must teach evolution in its curriculum, but it has once a week classes called RE, during which those children who are not Christian (whether they are atheist or not) are allowed to stay out of class.

However, children are not allowed to skip physical education classes, because, as one character says, “Today everybody believes in physical exercise instead of in God.” – Our society has no tolerance for different beliefs about health, because the expectation is that what is good for one person is good for all of them, and sport is very much revered in western culture.

So despite using “individuality” and “tolerance” in its lesson about what values people should have, the school is selective in what it is tolerant about.

And this plays on a different scale in every group, because a group (a society, a culture, a club, a school) cannot exist unless its members have some things in common. Moral rules are one way of enforcing these common beliefs on the members of a group.

So, despite this slow changing of the “mass mind” being a good thing – it prevents eternal chaos or dogmatic inertia – it is where all social friction rests and this is why we have bullying. Some people will always believe that the individual should be subordinate to the group (despite fashions about individuality) and others will believe that any community that makes individuals subordinate, is dictatorial.

That, of course, brings me back to the theories about people’s behaviour and the currently popular “brainstory theory”, which claims on the one hand that every single person is unique and yet seeks all answers in the brain or hormones, comparing those to one ideal standard.

In my view, people are not psychological clones of each other – all the same in how we experience the world – but neither are we completely unique, because our inborn psychological processes are a result of how we deal with information, and there are only so many ways we can do that – the amount of information may be limitless, but the number of ways we can relate to it is not – which is why some people believe the individual should be subordinate and why some people are more traditional than others.

Sure, all people are unique in the sense of having had different experiences and a different upbringing. But fundamentally, way deeper than simple parental DNA, there are 16 different sorts of people –not 4, not 8, not 32 – different ways of relating to these experiences and that upbringing, and these differences are vital for a species as complex as ours to prevent psychological cloning with physical determinism or environmental behaviourism, both of which would have stagnated intellectual progress long ago.

So, our inborn differences are vital for our survival as a group and simultaneously, our collective actions and interactions are responsible for the social problems we experience today, including bullying and eating disorders, and we can only change those if we understand the problem at this deeper level.

Why Soup and Bread

With only a week left before the presentation (or book launch) of Soup and Bread, I want to write a series of posts to explain some of the happenings in the book as well as discuss its social and psychological background. This is the first of these posts.

Soup and Bread, a novel for teens to adults, deals with two of the most pressing problems our children are faced with today: bullying and eating disorders. The book respects the idea that young teens are equally capable of understanding these complex issues and it also addresses the emotions of the involved adults, because neither adults nor kids can solve these problems alone. In that respect, the book is about children growing up, not in the “coming of age” sense – which, in books or movies today, is invariably about young teens having sex for the first time – but in the sense of taking on adult issues and taking responsibility for their own behaviour. That is what growing up means.

At the start of the book, Vonnie, in her final year of primary school, is a happy girl with a “lucky body”, a best friend and a tolerant family. Sure, there are some things she doesn’t like, such as Mum complaining about what she eats at every meal  and the teacher always scolding the whole class for what only the bullies do – but she’s very good at ignoring them. Vonnie is a bystander to the bullying. She doesn’t think it is right, but the bullies are a group of popular kids, and Vonnie doesn’t believe there is anything she can do about it; bullies simply belong to school, like PE, and just like Mum complaining belongs to dinnertime.

But then two things happen that upset her happy routine: Mum’s had enough of fussy eaters and starts making soup and bread for every meal, and a new boy, Frank, comes to Vonnie’s class and he starts to confront her about being a bystander. Suddenly Vonnie finds that she has no choice but to respond, so she rebels at home – she goes on hunger strike – and through Frank she meets a number of other children with health and food problems, which makes her wonder whether it is right to call herself “lucky” and look the other way: Is doing nothing the same as supporting the bullies?

During a climactic weekend outing with a group of kids, Vonnie learns that she doesn’t need to be a bystander; that she is strong enough to make a difference, not only by standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, but also by standing up to the adults and initiating a change at school.

I should start by saying that, although the book is critical of the current approach to these problems and the way the education system handles them, the book does not put blame with any individual children, parents or teachers. In each of these three groups, there are some negative characters and some who are (sometimes after consideration) more tolerant. The main premise of the book is that every person wants what is best, that nobody is to blame and that the way people respond is a result of their experiences, which, in turn, are a result of their inborn personality type. The problems therefore, are problems that come from the way people live together; they concern all of us and can only be understood (and solved) in the light of group psychology – which I will discuss in the next post.

Now, psychology is highly abstract and the unconscious processes that influence the way people respond to each other or feel about each other, are invisible. So, how to explain to readers as young as eleven that these unconscious differences in people exist and that they form the underlying causes of bullying, eating disorders and all of today’s ‘mental’ problems?

I hope to have done that with the use of metaphor and analogy. As Vonnie puts it: “Looks don’t matter, but there’s something inside people that can’t be seen, but it’s why people feel attracted to each other or not – like falling in love, I guess, only with bullies it’s about hate.”

Soup and Bread is not just the title, referring to the object of Vonnie’s rebellion, but it is also a metaphor. “Soup” is not one specific sort of food. Depending on the ingredients you put in it, the soup will taste differently and have a different nutritional value. So with people; we each have different ingredients, our inborn psychological tendencies, and those make for the variety we see in people. And just like once you put something in the soup, you cannot take it out again – that particular soup will have that taste – so every person is born with their ingredients and those cannot be changed by will or on advice of teachers or counsellors. But soup and bread together make for a wholesome meal and so all people together make up the variety of skills and insights needed for humanity as a whole to progress.

A third metaphor I use is the idea of soap bubbles. I also use this in my other books, but in this case, the children literally play with bubble blowers and so learn to ‘see’ that concrete objects and words resemble the soap of a bubble – they are more or less identical to any observer – but abstract words and inner senses are like the air inside the bubbles and cannot be taught or understood exactly the same by different people.

Understanding the unconscious is usually a question of an intuitive grasping and not of intellect and therefore much less dependent on age or education than on personality type. This means that some children and some adults will “get it” and some will not (yet). Some people will not accept any of this until an authority agrees with it. This authority can be the popular opinion or the academic experts, neither of which acknowledge personality types at the moment.

But as Carl Sagan so famously said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Just because there is no scientific proof, does not mean it doesn’t exist. Scientists cannot find what they are not looking for, and, currently, they dismiss inborn personality types in favour of observable superficial behaviour, hormones and neurology, because those are simpler.

Let me draw a comparison to medical science. Most people today accept the “holistic approach”. The vast majority of people are agreed that we can no longer treat people as a collection of detachable organs in order to heal them, which was the twentieth century reductionist approach; we need to treat the whole person.

Yet in psychology, the trend is going in the other direction: the study of psychology is becoming more and more a ‘hard’ science, focusing single-mindedly on the brain or the neural networks and with very little regard for the whole person, which would mean dealing with the uncountable variables that make us human. The reasons for that are explained in The Music of Life and are too complex to repeat here. Suffice it to say that everything people do is a result of their personality type and that includes the jobs they choose and the way they go about these jobs. This applies to those studying human behaviour as much as to any other field and as long as they dismiss their own personality influences, these scientists are unconsciously judging the people they observe from their own inborn biases, and medicating or labelling them accordingly.

And as a result of this general attitude and our blind trust in “scientists”, virtually every book that has been published about bullying in the last ten years has focused either on the bully or the victim – blaming upbringing, bodies or superficial behaviour. The same causes are assigned to eating disorders, suicide and other acts of self-harm, the incidence of which are expressed in younger and younger children. Clearly, the current approach is not working and we desperately need to wake up to the reason for that or we’ll lose even more children – that is why Soup and Bread is written.

The book provides as many as possible examples of the different responses (both positive and negative) to the individual “being different” and shows that this difference is not related to external traits. The children in the book talk about “insides and outsides” – the things you say, do, or choose versus those that are part of you; what you are.

There is nothing in this book in the way of actions or words expressed by teachers, that I have not personally either heard or observed a teacher do or say – I am not saying all in the same school, or even in the same country – and similarly, the behaviour of the bullies comes from first-hand accounts of those who were witness to such behaviour, either as a victim or a bystander.

The messages of Soup and Bread:

  • that bullying is based in natural (instinctive) behaviour, but it is not okay
  • that bullying is not a problem of individual kids; it’s a problem of a judgemental society
  • that no external features, race, religion, behaviours or physical traits are either the reason or an acceptable excuse
  • that other problems (such as eating disorders) are rooted in the same core differences and therefore immediately related, but not the cause
  • that nobody is to blame, but that we can nonetheless change our collective attitude and reduce the problem
  • that values education and advice such as “get tough” or lessons to that effect, cannot work and have made the problem worse, because it introduces double bind situations that leave the victim no way out
  •  that trying to deal with the symptoms is missing the bigger picture and the underlying causes
  • that most schools are bystanders and in some cases even accommodators and that “good advice” is covert bullying
  • that teaching the right and wrong of behaviour is ineffective unless accompanied by actions that demonstrate it
  • that teaching adults or children to deal with the problem can only work if they also have an understanding of the depth psychology that lies at the core of interpersonal relationships

In light of that, the book asks

  • schools to take responsibility and not point the finger at brain chemistry, disorders or other easy excuses that make the child feel ‘faulty’; we need to attack the behaviour instead of the person
  • children and parents to stand up for their rights, to get honest about the real issues and not accept patches, blame or being dismissed for not being experts
  • bystanders to get actively involved and collectively stand up for the victims
  • those types of personalities that naturally end up on the receiving end of bullying to connect together and support each other
  • politicians to listen to the voice of all people and not hide behind votes or bureaucracy

It is simply not good enough that in countries that are not at war, thousands of children have to be afraid for their life, harbour thoughts of suicide and self-harm, or feel not worthy enough to eat.

Getting Tough is Not the Answer

Okay, I don’t like using other people’s name in my blog posts, but I want to make sure that the other side of this hype is also heard.

Stephanie Metz just made international headlines, because she wrote in her blog (http://themetzfamilyadventures.blogspot.com.au/2013/10/why-my-kids-are-not-center-of-my-world.html)  that her children are not the centre of her world. She explains that her boys have to understand that their mother has a life of her own and that they can learn to wait and abide by certain rules.

She worries about her kids growing up in a society that is likely to take every act of rough-and-tumble play as bullying and has already instilled a worry about playing “boys games” in her still very young children.

I can totally see where she comes from. I have written both posts and books stressing that the current parenting trend and the ‘hysteria’ our society has with terrorism and abuse is only causing more and more problems.

In fact, a friend of mine just reported that six schools in a town were put in lock-down because a plumber was walking around with a flashlight and somebody went into a panic.

I also agree with Stephanie that kids can learn that they are not the most important thing ever and that this may help them when they grow up.

So my general sentiments are with her. When I look around, I also see a society of hyper-sensitive people who seem to fall apart the moment life gets a little tough.

But then she jumps conclusions.

First of all, she asserts that the kids have to get tough and possibly the parents. But that is missing the cause of this trend.

It is the lawyers and politicians that cause parents to be so permissive and subservient – to virtually beg their toddlers to listen to them, to refrain from setting limits and to cater to their whim. It is lawyers who are willing to allow children to sue their parents for punishing them. It is police and teachers in schools that encourage (young) children to report it if their parents “behave aggressively” towards them. – A child that is upset, because he was in trouble, will gladly report this, unaware of the consequences.

Neighbours spy on each other, teachers report parents and parents report teachers. If as child throws a tantrum in public the parents cannot do anything, because there are twenty strangers ready to use their mobile phone to call the police on them.

Parents are scared, because politicians that are incapable of understanding the psychology behind their laws, are threatening them with social services if they try to “parent” their children.

It is the politicians imposing “child abuse laws” without understanding the difference between abuse and discipline, who in an effort to collect a few more votes have caused the current generation to grow up believing they are allowed everything they wish immediately or otherwise have the right to become violent.

Now I agree that, in order to turn this general attitude around, we need to all get tougher, but we should get tougher on our politicians and our social attitude, because parents and children are already living with so much guilt.

I have before (https://nonentiti.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/just-pondering/) suggested that it may be easier for parents to accept labels that assure them that their children have a disorder – even if this isn’t true – so they don’t have to be responsible in a situation where this is made impossible for them. So many parents are today allowing their perfectly healthy children to grow up believing they have a disorder, ADD or autism, simply because it is the easy way out.

But my biggest issue about Stephanie’s blog post is her reference to bullying, which she clearly has no experience with.

She says “There was a time – not too long ago – when bullying was defined as slamming someone up against a locker and stealing their lunch money.  There was a time when kids got called names and got picked on, and they brushed it off and worked through it (ask me how I know this).  Now, if Sally calls Susie a bitch (please excuse my language if that offends you), Susie’s whole world crumbles around her, she contemplates suicide…”

But bullying isn’t about one child calling the other a bitch. And bullying isn’t about stealing their lunch money.  Bullying is systematic torture, often of a whole group of kids against one victim. Those victims of bullying are some of the toughest people around, because they keep on going back to school, day after day, to be hurt and told that they have no right to live, no right to eat and that they are worthless  – a situation where soldiers, who are trained to deal with such situations, would have long fallen apart.

Not only that, but counsellors and teachers have been telling the victims of bullying for years that they have to get tough. – in the process blaming the victims and encouraging the bullies, as I explained in another post: http://judgmenthurts.wordpress.com/?s=child%27s+school

It takes years before somebody actually commits suicide. That isn’t a response to being called a bitch – it is a result of having every sense of self destroyed by the bullies and by those who tell them it’s not a big deal and they should just “get tough”.

So, I hope that some of the people who so readily supported Stephanie’s view will realize that this entire reference to bullying is not only irrelevant to the topic, but it is victim-blaming.