With school bullying rife, many experts are touting the playground social dynamic as a crucial part of 'toughening up our kids'. But what's the real cost for our children's future?
I worry about the deflating hardships my innocent, bubbly four-year-old will face throughout her life. I don’t worry so much about the situations she will find herself in once she’s an adult, but the interactions that will squash her during childhood, particularly in her school years while she’s still building her resilience.
I often hear people agree the schoolyard is harsh, but argue that it will prepare our children for the reality of the world. After all, there are cruel people out there, and our children may work beside them (or for them) throughout their careers and encounter them in social relationships, so they need to be equipped to take these personalities in their stride or even stand up to them.
While I agree it’s important to prepare our children to face these challenges, I don’t agree that exposing them to harsh behaviour at school is the way to do it.
A school setting is far removed from the reality of life
Young children are usually grouped together with others of the same age, and all of them are relatively new to navigating their way through social interactions. They’re largely left to work it out for themselves.
And so, children simply learn from each other, often reinforcing each other’s bad habits, and the playground becomes a game of social survival, behaviour which is carried into the classroom.
I believe that this doesn’t so much prepare children for the harsh realities of adulthood, but rather it thrusts those harsh realities on them too soon.
Perhaps (and unfortunately) it even prepares them to become the very kinds of people we wanted to protect them from in the first place.
A missed learning opportunity
Allowing this to happen in a learning environment is a missed opportunity because this kind of social setting is the ideal place to teach children valuable communication techniques.
In a learning environment, children are constantly sharing ideas and responding to others and, when these conversations are facilitated using techniques that create a safe space, we’re equipping children with the tools they need to interact positively with the world around them. And these are the same tools that will help them thrive when things get tough later in life.
When we create a safe, non-judgemental environment and allow plenty of time to discuss uncomfortable situations that occur in the playground and beyond, we are empowering both parties (and the rest of the social group) with the ability to navigate challenging situations.
Children can use visual tools to share how conflicts made them feel (as often children are not aware of the impact of their actions or words on others) and then problem-solve strategies for next time. Social interactions in the playground can be a learning experience.
What fostering true resilience looks like
The first step towards creating resilient adults is to allow children to develop and practice communication tools in a supportive setting, so they feel empowered and armed with strategies to calmly face difficult people and situations, with understanding and compassion.
The best way to protect our children from the harsh realities of adulthood is to equip the next generation with the tools they need to avoid becoming victims or perpetrators of unhealthy communication habits.
True self-assurance and true resilience comes from a deep understanding of people, interactions and your place in the world.
This understanding does not miraculously occur when in survival mode, navigating the schoolyard. It comes through practicing tools with others to create and build a strong foundation and an awareness of why people are behaving and speaking in a certain way.
Shrugging and saying that a bit of nastiness at school will toughen up our children for a tough world doesn’t only leave our children ill-prepared for the future; it teaches them to accept that the world is full of harsh interactions.
If we stop accepting this as an inevitable fact and start being aware of a better approach, we can help our children create social change.
When we equip children with an understanding of the impact of their words and actions, an understanding of other’s intentions, and an understanding of effective communication, they can successfully mediate their way through all walks of life.
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Talula Hughes is from the Mid North Coast of NSW and is the founder of Alithia Learning, a supportive space where families come to connect and children can instigate collaborative hands-on projects, access resources and attend workshops. Talula's love of learning and reflexive relationship with education were instilled in her at an early age by her mother, a creative arts therapist and facilitator, who, through homeschooling, taught her the joys of exploring both the natural world and the world of ideas.