Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Long Walk Home- Does a change in school culture point to a lack of core values?

It seems like every time I turn around lately someone else is talking about bullying in middle and high schools! Kids are being tripped in hallways and slammed against lockers. The words "gay" and "fag" are used as taunts. Girls are teased for not using sexual lingo or wearing their clothes too tight around their necks or too loose around their curves. Kids are ostracized for being poor, uncool, too smart, too dumb, too pimply, weak or ugly.

The response in schools is a desperate attempt to educate kids about the effects of bullying, and to crack down on the offenders. While these attempt are well-intentioned, I think they are cracking down on what seems to me to be a symptom of something much more ominous than locker-slamming, towel-snapping, foulmouthed arrogant bullies.

When my father was in the Peace Corps he was stationed in a tiny village on a small island in Micronesia. My dad has many stories about his experience living there, from eating fish eyes and doughnuts with flies in them, to killing spiders in his hut with a machete. But one story comes to mind right now. He told me about discipline in the schools in the village of Palou. If a child disobeyed in school, or was disrespectful, they were told that they would be walked home by the principle after school. That child would immediately start quaking in his seat, unable to focus on anything for the rest of the day... because he was prepared for the longest walk home of his life.

When the principle and the child arrived at the home, the parents would come to their door. The principle would gravely tell the parents that their child had spit on the floor at school, or mocked the teacher, or pushed a classmate. The parents would then step outside their hut to be whipped!

Now, don't go crazy. I am in no way in favor of public flogging, or private for that matter. However, this story illustrates how in this tiny village they believe it's the parent's responsibility was to raise a respectful child. If you fail, it's not the child's fault, it's yours!

So why do we, living in this progressive country, detatch ourselves from our child's actions and remain in the background of their moral upbringing? Why must they, alone, bare the consquence of an immoral act? It's like we raise them up through age five, then once they're off to school for seven hours a day, it's like, "Whew, now someone else can handle this!" Now, understand that I'm not talking about a particular "we," but more like a generalization of the masses. There are a percentage of us that are still taking responsibility for our children, who constantly work on their developing characters. However, I feel like a growing part of "the masses" send their children off to school, and when they do so, they immediately release all responsibility for not just education, but also socialization and character-building, to the public institution.

Why? Why is this okay? The schools are trying desperately to institute education and discipline policies to combat what seems to me a deeper issue of lack of integral values that are necessary for a peaceful society: love, compassion, understanding, justice, honesty. Did the kids just check these at the door when they scanned their security card in the lobby of Dead President High? Or did they never have these values to begin with? And honestly, why does it become the school's responsibility to raise children? Schools are for learning geometry, history, math, language, arts, science... NOT for learning how to be in the world. That is a parent's job, and if they are not doing it, then dammit, they should be flogged by the principle (hypothetically speaking, of course).

I am not going to pretend that I am a perfect parent. My children have their own socialization issues. But I am addressing them full force, always reinforcing the values I feel are most important (honesty and compassion). One of my children has been on the locker side of the shove for several years. The school continues to battle bullying with "friendship keys" and counselling... for HIM! NO. I want to talk to the parents of the kid who framed my son for writing "fuck" on the bathroom wall, who called him names, who made him cry. I want to know why that child is lacking in important human values. I want that parent to say that they are addressing the situation. I want that child to say he/she is sorry they hurt my child. No-one is taking responsibility... except the schools (some schools do a better job than others), and even then they are only combatting the results (a bully). Who is addressing the fact that a child doesn't have enough compassion to care about another student, to be intentionally mean to one of his peers?

Lately (I'd say all within the past ten days) I have read a blog post, watched a movie, seen two news reports, and had a converstaion with a distraught mom, all focused on bullying and the tumultuous social climate in the higher grades in public school. It probably happens in private school, too, so I'm not playing favorites. It makes me ask myself, if it takes a village to raise a child, do I want it to be that village? That's not a village, it's like "Lord of the Flies!" And I'm sorry, if you think posting "Bully Free Zone" on the cafeteria wall, handing out flyers with keys to being a good friend, and giving detention to the trippers and name-callers is going to cure the problem, I think you are delusional about the depth of the issue.

Maybe the school principles need to walk some children home.


  1. I completely understand your frustration. I do want to say though that I think it's progress that schools are recognizing bullying as a problem, instead of shutting their eyes to it. Bulling has happened in every generation. I was pinched and had my things destroyed by the 'popular' girls in 5th grade because I didn't have cool clothes. The gay boy in my high school in the 90's was beat up on a regular basis and banned from prom. There was no news report back then, no parents crying out, no bully free zones. My dad was beat up for wearing glasses in the 50's and 60's and for being poor. I'm not saying that thing have gotten better, but I also don't think they've gotten worse. And I'm glad that in our school at least bullying is taken very seriously. I just hope that continues. But I agree you are right, the responsibility starts in the home and a lot of parents out there have abdicated all responsibility. It's sad.

  2. Christina, I agree that the schools are taking a step in the right directions, and are working hard to change the school environment. They are cracking down on bullying the best that they can, and that's commendable. And you are right, teasing and bullying have been around for a long time. I was teased for being chubby and having warts. It was hard. Maybe I'm just feeling it more acutely now as a parent feeling such empathy for our children. I just feel like there has to be some core issue "causing" these behaviors. I am reading "Three Cups of Tea," in brief about a man who built schools in rural Pakistan. These children cherished an education. Do you think that our children/culture takes education for granted, takes school for granted as something they "have to do" rather than as a coveted opportunity for having a better life? Could this "silver spoon" attitude be contributing to the social climate? Food for thought...

  3. Good questions Melinda. I've heard a lot of good things about that book. I do think that our culture takes education for granted, and most kids see school as a social rather than an educational venue. Perhaps that is part of the cause.

    Oh, and as a parent... I want to rip the limbs off the kids who bully my kids, or any of the kids I care about.