Children can be mean. Really mean.
This isn’t news, but you wouldn’t know it given our national obsession with anti-bullying legislation. In fact, we are so intent on “doing the right thing” by legislating against children that you’d think we were waging war against a new and terrifying enemy. But there is no new enemy.
Children haven’t changed.
What has changed is our tolerance of childhood aggression. One way we demonstrate this through our speech. No longer do we talk about kids making mistakes. Now they are bullies, victims, and bystanders. Another way we demonstrate this is through our laws. We see children as being so mean and terrifying and out of control that we might as well be at war with them, and our primary strategic initiative is Anti-Bullying legislation.
This month the California legislature sent a bill to Governor Brown (AB 256) that would give schools the power to discipline kids for being mean to each other outside of school. If he signs this bill into law, children as young as fourth grade (that is, 9 and 10-year-olds) could be suspended or expelled from school if it is determined that are mean to a classmate, anywhere, anytime.
Plenty of parents think this is a great idea.
One father I spoke with is in favor of the bill because he thinks it will stop the kind of behavior that upset his child so much. He reported that his 12 year-old daughter was cyber-bullied; she received multiple texts from a friend that left her feeling very upset. He believes schools should have the power to intervene in such situations, regardless of when or where the behavior occurred.
My question for parents like him is this: how will you feel when the shoe is on the other foot? But my child’s not a bully, they respond, and I agree. And neither is the other child.
This father didn’t seem to understand the challenges of the preadolescent world, although I appreciate his angst and frustration. He had an upset 12 year-old girl on his hands, and that’s reason enough to want help. But he needed help in understanding his daughter (and all 12 year-old girls), not in punishing the other child. Sadly, he had been convinced by our current war against childhood aggression that he needed to stamp it out, that his daughter shouldn’t have to tolerate any kind of meanness, and that she’s at risk if she gets upset by the actions of a friend. But none of these things is true.
What anti-bullying legislation does, is convince us that our children are in danger and that we have no power to protect them. This simply isn’t the case. There are plenty of things we can do to help our children, but giving schools the authority to punish them for behavior that takes place outside of school isn’t one of them.
In the end, that father did find a way to help his daughter. He talked to her about the situation, approached the parents of the other girl, had a productive and reasonable conversation with them, and everyone cooled down.
All without the aid of legislation.