Noelle McCarthy
Noelle McCarthy is a Herald columnist

Noelle McCarthy: Natural savagery in little girls and boys

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Sang Whitney Houston, "I believe the children are our future" - proof, possibly, that she was out of it even before she started on the drugs.

I do not relish the prospect of a world where children are our future, not as they are anyway, not before they grow up.

I like babies because they are beautiful and biddable, and toddlers because they are entertaining and irrational and self-obsessed. Late-stage teenagers are adults, basically, so I have no problem talking to them. But anything from age 6 to 15 makes me nervous.

Children are emotional and unpredictable. They are completely subjective, which makes them ruthless, and they are goal-focused to an unsettling degree. They always seem to want something or other - a kitten or a later bedtime or a box of juice - and it's boring the way they try to enlist you to help them get it.

If they're not doing that, they're asking awkward questions or ones you can't answer, and it unnerves me how they seem to be able to see through you to the truth.

I'm insecure, obviously, but I feel my own inadequacies keenly around children; my inability to share my subjectivity rewardingly with theirs, my failure to procure kittens and later bedtimes and boxes of juice.

But I have always been uncomfortable around children, especially when I was one. I am thinking about that this week, with stories of ever more horrendous instances of bullying in the news.

Up and down the country a select group of our young people appear to be devoting all of their time to bullying and tormenting and beating the hell out of their peers and videoing the result.

The most appalling instances of violence we're seeing seems to be perpetrated by teenagers, but when I think back to my own school days the early years were the worst.

And it wasn't violence, either - I wasn't kicked or beaten or spat on like some poor schoolkids today. I was just left out.

My first years at school were populated by a cast of cunning, hysterical, mixed-up and downright wicked young girls who pilloried me and ignored me when they felt like it, and who also came to all of my birthdays and pretended to be my friends.

Maybe it's wrong to say "pretended", maybe that is what constitutes friendship when you're 7 years old? But when I think back now, that is what I remember; the awful anxiety that came with the uncertainty about whether I'd go to school and anyone would be talking to me on any given day.

There were three or four of them in it, I remember, my ostensible "BFFs" who would decide whether I was going to be spoken to or not, and by mid-morning I'd usually have received word from an emissary as to whether I'd be allowed to play with them that day.

A "no" consigned me to a day of isolation, a "yes" brought me back into the fold. Not that that couldn't change as the day went on, however. Lunchtime breaks operated under a complex system of alliances. The power plays were subtle, unspoken and terrifyingly unpredictable.

I was always aware I could be jettisoned at any time, depending on who these little overlords needed to impress. This didn't go on for ever; I was pretty happy at school by the time I was 12.

I got teased a bit for wearing CND badges and getting around in my Dad's tweed sportscoat, but nothing too bad. A boy called Mark Thornhill stole my shoe and weed in it once, but this was not uncommon behaviour from a 14-year-old Irish male.

I had friends, I had a laugh and I wasn't shunned. Mostly, I felt different, but OK. The bullying I experienced at the beginning of school was probably just the natural tyranny of little girls.

I have no idea what it feels like to be bullied in earnest, bullied so badly that you cry yourself to sleep, or can't tell a parent, or need to bunk school. I listened to an interview last week with a mother who described how her son locked himself in a classroom and stayed in there, barricaded while his assailant tried to get in.

The school was struggling to deal with the bully, because he is too young to expel. Meanwhile, his target has to use a classroom like a burrow and there is nothing his mother can do.

There are considerations here, about balancing the right to an education with the right to be educated in peace. But it's impossible to think about a young boy locked in an empty classroom while an attacker beats on the window and not be sure that somehow, somewhere, something's gone awry.

Or maybe not? The natural savagery that exists in all of us is strong when we are little. Why wouldn't it be?

Children know on an instinctive level that they have no real rights in the world. And they won't until they grow up, so maybe, in the face of such frustration, railing on the weaker ones is the obvious thing to do?

- NZ Herald

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