lunes, 30 de septiembre de 2013

Bullying is not a Rite of Passage

About nine years ago I worked as a temp at a day care centre. I didn't have children then, but after that brief work experience I vowed that when I had them I would never ever put them in day care.

There was nothing wrong with the centre, don't get me wrong. The staff did their job, some with more enthusiasm than others. There were babies and small children, so it was all about playing, singing songs, colouring in, playdough, and story time. There was a time for everything, especially meals, when they all had to sit at their tiny tables and eat whatever they were served, except for the babies, who were fed from their bottles. After that they all had to lie down and nap. There was one kid who could never sleep and I would read stories to him instead.

I love children but I didn't enjoy that job. The whole time I was there I had a nagging feeling of something being just not right. And it was this: The children were taken well care of, but they were not getting any love. There were no hugs, no one-on-one time. I was put in charge of changing nappies, which was also done at a certain time and in successive order. I remember a boy, about two years old, who turned his head when I changed him, avoiding eye contact. I felt a pang of shame on his behalf and a need to apologise to him (which I did). It felt totally wrong for me, a stranger, to invade his privacy like that. Then there was a three-year-old girl who clung to me from the moment she saw me. She would not leave my side for a second and kept asking for hugs and kisses; she also said she loved me even though we had just met. She was needy to an alarming extreme, but I had to pay attention to many other children and she was told by another carer to leave me alone and go play with the other children.

Ever since then I've been convinced that day care centres are not good for children. They are convenient for parents, especially if they work and have no other help with the kids. Besides, the Australian government provides families with child care benefits and rebates, so it actually works out cheaper to have someone else (a team of professional carers) to mind the children. And some parents and experts will argue that it is actually good for the kids to be at these centres, because they get to interact with other children and socialise.

I don't agree with that, of course. From birth to three years old children do not need to socialise. They need the unconditional love, care and undivided attention of their parents or some other adult who acts as such.

It is no wonder that children who go to day care get ill so often. They were not exclusively breastfed for long, so their immune system is not as strong as it could be. They're not carried or hugged enough. They spend way too much time on their own, surrounded by many others like them but not actually interacting. And they all share their viruses. One kid gets sick and they all get sick. They're too little and vulnerable to fight illness, and there's nothing anybody can do except for sucking it up.

Schools are much like day care centres in the sense that children are put there under the pretence of giving them an education and social life with their peers. The virus that some kids take from home to school is bullying. It spreads and gets out of proportion and again, teachers can't do anything to control it because there's just not enough of them. It gets more complicated when teachers bully as well and some are not even conscious of it.

Bullies are victims themselves. They are bullied either by their parents or their teachers. And they have followers because, like a virus, bullying is extremely contagious. Children bully if they're bullied and if they see others do it, because that's how they best learn: by example. Even though there is more awareness now than there used to be, most children don't have the resources to stand up to bullies, so they're asked to report them. But kids who are bullied by their own parents or teachers have it very tough.

My oldest son is seven and he doesn't put up with anybody's shit. If an adult does wrong by him, he will answer back or say, 'You are stupid!' (He did this one time an adult called him stupid; there were no other adults present, but another kid who witnessed it told me the story.) I don't have the answers to everything and I don't consider what Dave does right or wrong, but I don't like name-calling or aggression of any kind, and Dave knows that if somebody called me stupid I would choose to leave rather than confront the person. Likewise, if somebody tried to attack me physically, I would try to escape rather than hit back.

Dave and Alex don't do that. They fight. So they fight each other. They haven't been in a physical fight with other boys yet (just verbal), but not long ago Dave hit an adult who was making fun of him. I saw it and was shocked. The adult was outraged and told me that if Dave went to school and got hit a few times by other kids he would see how he'd like it and wouldn't do it again. 'You were teasing him. He told you to stop, and you wouldn't. He lost control and hit you,' I told him a bit later, not in the heat of the moment, because I didn't want him to think I was defending what Dave had done, just trying to understand it. He didn't agree, and that's fine, because a lot of people don't see things my way and I'm used to it. I talked to Dave afterwards and he said the man had made him mad and he hadn't been able to control himself.

Now that I'm thinking of it again, I reckon it was a good thing because it shows that Dave feels strong enough to stand up to anyone, even a grown man. He's also aware that he needs to control himself, it was a misunderstanding after all. The best thing is that he hasn't learned this by being bullied at home or school. On the contrary, children whose parents truly love and respect them (that means no name-calling, smacking, punishing, etc) feel valued and loved and expect everybody to treat them that way. Love and respect make them confident and resilient, bullying doesn't.

But there are bullies everywhere, and Dave and Alex are part of the big world, so they encounter them more often than not. Only last week they were playing with some boys at a playground while I was reading a book. They seemed to be having fun, but on the way back home in the car, Dave said, 'I'm tired of making new friends. Every time we meet somebody new they have to say something nasty to us. Those kids called us stupid.' 'Oh, yeah, why would they call you that?' I asked. 'Because I said we don't go to school,' Alex chimed in.

I knew this would happen and it's going to happen again. I can live with it, but I want to make sure the kids can too. So I said, 'Would you rather go to school so other kids won't say you're stupid?' 'No, I don't want to go to school,' Dave said. 'I wouldn't want to do the same every day. One of the boys said school was boring. There was only one boy who said he liked school, and that's the one who called us stupid.'

So we're good then. It's still no school for us. I feel bad for the kid who called my children stupid, because he was just repeating what he's heard an adult say: If you don't go to school, you'll end up stupid. Nothing further from the truth.