Threatening parents won’t solve schoolyard bullying
If you cast your mind back to your childhood, most people can remember being on the receiving end of bullying.
These memories are often painful and acute. I don’t mean that in a sort of Californian psychobabble sense, as if to cry out for what the Yanks call “closure” for the exaggerated horrors of a tormented childhood. It’s just that these memories are deeply resonant.
You can remember exactly how you felt at the moment you were being called names or pushed around, as if it had only happened yesterday. Just as painful are the shameful memories of those times when we joined in with the bullying of others.
It’s quite bizarre how kids behave, and hard to work out why they can be such evil little sods to each other. I can still remember one girl from my primary school, who was a gorgeous kid and would now be a beautiful woman, but for some reason the entire school had decided that she was ugly and teased her as such. I remember asking my mother if she thought the girl was ugly and Mum said she was one of the prettiest girls at school, and couldn’t understand why I had asked her the question. It made no sense.
As a younger reporter I spent a couple of years in the mid 90s covering the education round and spent a fair bit of time talking to a child development academic called Doctor Ken Rigby who specialises in the field of bullying. Dr Rigby did a lot of ground-breaking work on the enduring impact of bullying. He helped create a definition of what constituted bullying, as when he started work on the subject in the 1980s there was very little research on what was wrongly regarded as an inevitable part of growing up. Dr Rigby argued strongly against its inevitability and helped develop what he calls a bystander-based strategy, arguing that most bullying takes place when others are present but fail to act. If you could encourage those passive kids to speak up, bullying would be reduced.
Since meeting Dr Rigby almost twenty years ago you could safely assume that whatever good work he did has been challenged by the insidious rise of social media and technology. Despite the recognition of bullying as a problem and the introduction of strategies to tackle it, the rate of bullying may well have gone up, as there are now so many new mediums by which adolescents can be unpleasant to each other.
Frustrated by the rate and nature of modern bullying, the former head of the Family Court Alastair Nicholson is now proposing the parents of bullies should be held legally liable for the conduct of their children, and that schools should also be the subject of legal action if they fail to create a safe environment for their students. Nicholson is one of Australia’s leading legal minds and his proposals should not be dismissed out of hand. However, I would respectfully say that the proposal seems to owe much to the American-style culture of litigiousness, and the strange mindset which holds that suing people can somehow make the world a better place.
Making schools legally liable may have some merit. If a school fails to implement the kind of anti-bullying strategies which people such as Dr Ken Rigby pioneered, you can argue that they have failed in their duty of care and left themselves exposed to legal action. Yet you would have to feel for the school principal who has implemented all of those strategies and still finds that instances of bullying occur. Sadly, that is probably every principal in the land, as these days all the schools are hot-to-trot on the issue, yet it still occurs despite their best efforts.
The proposal to pit parents against parents in the courts is the more troublesome part of Mr Nicholson’s proposal. It suggests that there is a causal link between bad parenting and bad child behaviour. In some cases there most definitely would be but in other cases there would not. All the research I have seen on bullying suggests that kids often become bullies when they have been bullied by other kids. The child who is beaten or belittled by a bad parent may also become a bully. But there are plenty of kids from loving and stable backgrounds who go through a bullying phase, despite the best efforts of their parents to bring them up well.
I am sure it is not Mr Nicholson’s intention, but the chief result of his proposal may well be to open up a new income stream for lawyers, without doing much to combat the prevalence of bullying in the community. He was quoted as saying “If there’s one thing that makes people tend to be cautious, it’s the fact it might cost them a lot of money”, which decoded means that it would make lawyers a lot of money.
Society is increasingly full of noble-minded laws which do nothing to alter human behaviour. Racial vilification laws for example do nothing to combat racism. Rather, they have the undesirable effect of turning people who are ignorant or rude into free speech martyrs, and also emboldening others to shoot their mouths off in support with their equally unpleasant observations.
In the same vein, threatening parents with legal action for the behaviour of their children when it is no fault of their own, and probably even something which they aren’t even aware of, will do nothing to make the schoolyard a safer and happier place. The best way would seem to be a redoubling of the strategies to stop it from happening in the first place, rather than criminalising parents for something which is often out of their control.
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