Not everyone is equipped for the school of hard knocks.

My fellow columnist, broadcaster Jack Tame, says of children these days: we are "breeding them too soft". When he was a kid he loved playing violent-sounding games of bullrush because they taught him: "If you have to run from the lion it pays not to be the last gazelle."

When I read that I threw out what I'd been writing for this week and started again.

I take the opposite view. I believe we need to be more gentle. Not just to children but to ourselves as well. I would like to share a few reasons why, in, hopefully, a non-shrill, respectful manner. (The irony of me bullocking you to be more gentle is not lost on me!)

1 In order to grow and learn, we need to feel safe. Fear destroys curiosity and playfulness. Would you like me to explain that further?


When we are hyper-vigilant to a potential threat and our fight-or-flight limbic brain is on high alert, we can't fully access our more sophisticated, executive part of our brain, the part that can do algebra and analyse Proust. It's more important to stay alive than to understand tangential velocity. So in order to explore and grow, we need to feel safe.

2 You can't just choose to think your way out of trauma by deciding to toughen up, as Jack seems to believe.

New research shows that even if you use strength of will to put on an apparent tough self, there is a price. Trauma is stored in our bodies and produces actual physiological changes in the brain.

Long after a traumatic experience is over it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger, provoking unpleasant emotions, intense physical sensations and impulsive and aggressive actions. (I have hideous memories of bullrush at Hamilton West Primary School in the 1970s, that golden age of cow-cocky toughness and bigotry.)

3 Trauma can be passed on through generations.

The Adverse Childhood Events study is one of the largest pieces of research of its kind, with 17,000 participants. Over a decade, the results showed a strong, graded relationship between the level of traumatic stress in childhood and the risk for physical and mental illness in adulthood.

In addition, geneticists at New York's Mt Sinai Hospital have shown how trauma survivors pass on genetic changes to their children, who have an increased likelihood of stress disorders.

4 It is also now accepted that individuals can meet the diagnosis for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from what is known as developmental trauma.


You don't need to be physically beaten to have been traumatised. We are social beings and need to be seen and validated in order to become healthy, functioning members of the clan. Trauma devastates this social-engagement system and interferes with co-operation, nurturing and the ability to function as a productive member of the group.

It bothered me Jack saying, apparently with approval, that participation in bullrush games was not voluntary. I don't believe you should feel forced to take part in violent sport in order to feel a sense of belonging. If we feel abandoned, worthless or invisible - "the last gazelle" - nothing seems to matter.

5 New research suggests many addictive behaviours develop as a way to manage a sense of helplessness, which may originate in childhood trauma. I would suggest the kind of tough playground Jack idealises does not work for everybody, and will make some children feel helpless.

There is a school of thought that believes we escape into addictive behaviours as a displacement activity in an attempt to get a sense of control because we feel helpless to do anything about difficult feelings.

6 I agree with Jack if what he is saying is that we should encourage children to develop strength of character. But there seems to be a tedious focus on only certain character virtues: the grandiose, big-noting qualities of being great, looking good and winning. Less flashy qualities don't get much of a look-in.

Researchers have found the appearance and frequency in published books of the words humility and humbleness dropped by 43 per cent between 1900-2000. Some researchers are now advocating the benefits of developing a "quiet ego".

The latest neuroscience suggests that "transcending" the self, not "enhancing" the self, is actually the most powerful way to get a sense of peace and wellbeing. That is, thinking about other people will make you happier than focusing on yourself and what a winner you are.

7 Games and sport can be great and a fun way to build reciprocity, but not when children are humiliated for not being tough enough. Trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk says children need to experience how rewarding it is to work at the edge of their abilities. Resilience is the product of agency: knowing what you do can make a difference.

But we still need to go gently. "Only the gentle are ever really strong." James Dean said that and he wasn't exactly a wimp.