A parent’s perspective – Maria Byrne
The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn, recently published new anti-bullying procedures to be adopted and implemented by all primary and post primary schools. As parents, we all worry about how our children will be treated when they move outside the immediate family circle. I always remember my eldest son starting school and how miserable I was when a rather insensitive teacher described him as “disruptive” and wondered if his behaviour was equally “bold” in the home environment. I couldn’t believe that my little angel had been written off and categorised just days into what was meant to be a great new adventure.
The problem with bullying is that, similar to the unwelcome analysis presented by my son’s teacher, the roots of bullying behaviour are found in how we treat others who are perceived as a problem.
Those who are bullied are often viewed as different or not fitting in to a particular group. Ruairí Quinn’s guidelines focus more on particular types of bullying such as racist and homophobic bullying. However, as any of us who went to school knows, it doesn’t take very much to become a victim of unwanted and unwelcome harassment. I remember my mother buying me a woolly hood that made me look very like a modern day Robin Hood. I was reluctant to wear it, worried that I’d stand out from the crowd and attract any negative attention.
Many of the behaviours that the Minister for Education and Skills wants to see schools working on are very similar to the Christian values that parents are trying to pass on to their children. Fostering respect, kindness, empathy and treating people as you’d like to be treated yourself are key aspects of the Gospel message. While I welcome anything that will tackle bullying, I think we’re fighting a losing battle if we fail to see behaviour in the context of any kind of moral framework. Our behaviour is very much connected to our belief system and how we view the world. It’s also an extension of what we learn from our very earliest years. If we were taught to share, to reach out to those in need, to love our neighbour, in whatever guise we find him or her, maybe we would be less inclined to engage in bullying action.
I believe that the best educational tool to prevent bullying is the behaviour that children see in their own home. It’s great to produce lists of recommendations, to have curriculums that promote inclusion, but the fantastic lessons on valuing Traveller identity or respecting the rights of minorities will fall on deaf ears if children don’t see the desired behaviour being practised. If, we, as parents, speak in a derogatory manner about any group of people, our children will echo our words and behaviour.
We can’t expect to mutter cruel words about Travellers coming to the door or immigrants stealing our jobs and act shocked when our children do the same. Being a Christian parent challenges us to overcome our prejudices and to stand out from the crowd to oppose any undermining of the dignity of another group of human beings. I was disappointed to see that the Action Plan on Bullying’s reference to schools with a religious ethos was somewhat negative. Rather than commenting on how a Christian ethos might be a positive thing in the fight against bullying, it spoke of how a religious ethos “should not preclude a school from ensuring that all students and teachers feel safe and affirmed in their unique human identity”.
One particular worry for parents is the risk from cyber-bullying. Having daughters of 12 and 14 years old myself, I know the pressure on parents to monitor and control internet usage. An EU study, EU Kids Online, found that 4% of Irish children between the ages of 9 and 16 experienced online bullying. A recent report in Britain by the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label sampled 10,008 young people between 13 and 22, and found that the levels of cyber-bullying were much higher than previously reported.
Some 69% of young people had experienced cyber-bullying with 20% saying that the bullying was extreme. The internet is a great resource where children can interact with the world, but we can forget that the level of online interaction should be controlled.
The parenting website imom.com advises parents to create an internet family contract which includes things like keeping the computer in the common living area, being friends with your children on social media sites and installing parental control software.
As parents, we set boundaries around children coming home from events, study, homework and household chores. Why should we drop the ball when it comes to the cyber world? If we’re knowledgeable about how Facebook and other sites operate, we’ll be quick to spot the danger signs which may turn into online bullying. When it comes to younger children and teenagers, it can be better to delay such sites until a greater level of maturity is reached.
Anything which works to eliminate bullying is to be welcomed. I’d suggest that, while the focus on schools is important, parents need to be empowered to take a more active role.
As the key players in their children’s lives, their input and involvement is probably more important than any other factor when it comes to how children treat those they encounter in their daily lives.