Deborah Hill Cone: Unlocking the most valuable lesson for children

For children to negotite their way through childhood friendships and cliques is a valuable part of developing their own identity. Photo / Getty Images
For children to negotite their way through childhood friendships and cliques is a valuable part of developing their own identity. Photo / Getty Images

"Ideally, what should be said to every child repeatedly throughout his or her school life is something like this: 'You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do.

'What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be'."

I love this quote from Doris Lessing, the writer who popped her clogs last week. She is dead right about education. Conformist thinking doesn't win Nobel Prizes, and the most clever people I know were school dropouts. Although that could well be an illusory correlation, I missed that lesson.

But Lessing has overlooked something important in writing off the education system. The most profound notion you glean from school is not the era-specific bien pensant ideology rammed down your throat (global warming, air miles, sunburn kills, capitalism is evil, five-plus a day) but the very valuable lesson of how to rub along with other folk.

I say this through gritted teeth as I detest the word "folk" for its rustic naffness, but in this context, it sounds about right. Of course, it would be handy if you didn't have to learn to get on with random other punters, but we are social animals and so, tough cheese, you do.

Otherwise I would home-school my offspring with lashings of Ursula le Guin, Schubert, TED talks, tapestry and existentialism. But it's more important that they learn to be part of the group.

Getting on with other kids was the topic of a useful lecture evening I attended at my children's school this week.

Academic Nicole Price who has spent six years researching bullying for her upcoming book, Y do U H8 Me? , talked about ways to try to empower your child to fight their own battles. She also observed how negotiating their way through childhood friendships and cliques - for girls this is "the Queen Bees and Wannabes" syndrome - is a valuable part of developing their own identity.

We also heard from health psychologist Sandy Clavell who talked about ways to help your child learn resilience. The theme which ran through both of their presentations was the idea that kids have to do a lot of this for themselves.

But social psychologists will point out that long-term behaviour change is only sustainable if the subject attributes the improvement to factors under their own control.

This can be a painful truth for parents. You want to help but at the same time helping can be entrenching the problem.

How do you validate your child's pain and make them feel heard, but at the same time not frame them as a victim?

How do you take the initiative to create a clean culture where bullying, like weeds, can't take hold, but not step in and stop children from working out their own solutions?

I don't have the answer.

Afterwards I was talking to one of the most perceptive teachers from our school. "You know what is worst?" he said. "Birthday party invitations. You see the children come to school and dole them out and I can see the look on the face of the kid that doesn't get invited and the ones who do, the invitations give them so much power."

It made me remember, with stomach-clenching shame, one year when I was about 12 having a birthday party and leaving out one girl and the delicious sense of power that gave me. What a little cow I was.

The terrifying truth is that we are all both the bullies and the bullied, putting on those different roles at different times, even if our self-serving biases (we do tend to perceive ourselves favourably) mean we seldom see the pain we inflict on others, but are always saliently aware of the pain that others inflict on us.

Ultimately, we can't help our children to find their own identities, to learn compliance yet also think for themselves. Only they can do it.

As poet E E Cummings said: "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting."

- NZ Herald

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