I’ve always been puzzled by the idea that only children can bully. And that they can only bully other children – and only in school. Most of the demons that plague people’s self-esteem are exactly as old as their first experience of this which, for many of us, occurred not far past infancy. All across modern society, with almost no geopolitical exceptions, school unites the inaugural experience of both paternal authorities (that doesn’t come from our parents) and peer competition (that doesn’t come from our siblings). It’s overwhelming for any child and the 21st century has seen the emergence of a variety of factors that rather compound the issue – social media, widespread recreational drug use, organized child abuse and perhaps most profoundly, learning difficulties.
Take for example homeschooling, which broadly removes this social aspect and outlines the progress towards merit in a more linear fashion; it’s still really bloody hard when you have a learning difficulty. The school was undoubtedly the most consistent adversary I faced when growing up with my illness and despite the quality of these institutions and the good intentions of their educational remit, school frontloaded everything I would have to deal with.
The hardships I had, however, weren’t actually what made my experience abnormal, this is to say that much of this weight is removed when you simply consider that children are supposed to make mistakes. We watch them learn and grow based on this basic precept of trial and error, whilst cushioning them from the harshest blows. Children with learning difficulties are sometimes powerless to know which direction the blows are coming from – and they’re powerless to know the frequency and viciousness with which bullies can through them. This leads us to the second betrayal these vulnerable children can experience, that of those teachers who bully. These are individuals in a position of trust, individuals who have framed their careers around being a laudable and influential presence to children and they’re often the worst for it. A bad teacher can thrust all the difficulties of trying to function in a meritocracy on top of the kids under their care and offer no real solutions. Meanwhile, parents try desperately to control the ebb and flow of difficult situations kids find themselves in, sharing a degree of impotence with them; all to many mothers are familiar with the feeling of a child coming home from school with a dreaded ‘damage report’ of the day’s tribulations.
Furthermore, there’s the way in which the structure we so often prioritize on giving to children at home and at school lays this meritocracy out in front of them. With, for example, ability based classes, children have their peer group, their seating plan, the books they read and the syllabus they learn imposed on them for years at a time. We take these small mistakes and compartmentalize them with adult levels of complexity and anxiety, blissfully unaware that our children can see the extent of underconfidence in them.
I’d submit that confidence is absolutely critical. We have the god given opportunity to make sure our children don’t carry these small wounds through to adulthood where they can fester and scar. After all, there is perhaps no more certain a way to ensure a child winds up with these learning difficulties and mental health issues than gaslighting and disparaging them now. They are the future, how much should we really be condemning them now, so that we might feel less insecure later?