The nature of a thing is indeed more important than its label.
I wore round-framed National Health glasses, very much in the style of John Lennon, from the age of two until I was sixteen. Worse than that, as a very young girl a plaster patch was placed over one eye in order to train my wandering pupil to focus. I felt neither stylish nor accepted. I simply felt different. Helpfully, this was pointed out at regular intervals by my classmates. Well I certainly hope they were trying to be helpful- at the time it seemed very nasty!
‘Speccy four eyes!’ and ‘Pirate Pete’ all may have been well intended but I can assure you that by the time I was twelve my response to these frequent jeers was less than polite.
You may have heard the oft-told fable, ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you!’ Those of us who were victims of vicious taunting as children know that this simply is not true. Name-calling can hurt very much indeed – in fact its effects can be life long. Children can be very cruel to one another. They manage to find sport in identifying difference and sometimes deliberately target a weakness or sensitivity. But why on earth do they do it ? More importantly, what can we, as adults, do to help restore a more affirming, nurturing and emotionally safe environment so that our young people can thrive.
There are many reasons why children call one another names. Not all of them are bad. Some children label themselves to simply belong to one group or another. My niece was a self styled ‘Goth’ and very happily so and a friend of mine calls himself a ‘Techy Geek’ with a good deal of pride.
Sadly there are sometimes deeper reasons that make children resort to name calling and insults. Here are just a few that I came upon in my own research over the years:
- As a way of excluding someone from a group rather than being excluded oneself
- Copied or mimicked behaviour learned elsewhere, often from within the family
- An attempt to assert power or control into a situation
- An outpouring of learned prejudice concerning race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
- To deflect attention away from oneself
- An impulsive act of aggression carelessly directed at the victim
And yes, there are always victims. Studies have shown that the effects of name-calling can be highly damaging to self esteem and can seriously erode one’s sense of self and self worth. In some cases this can lead to withdrawal from social situations and, in the very worst cases, depression and suicidal thoughts.
For these reasons we should never ignore this kind of bullying. Children need to be listened to and given a range of strategies to armour themselves emotionally by the caring adults around them. This means so much more than simply telling the child to ‘ignore’, ‘rise above’ or even more often ‘ thump them back!’. Violent retaliation is never a solution although I do recall trying it out myself!
Children learn name-calling from adults. This is the harsh reality. Parents use a variety of names as terms of endearment but you must also have heard parents using names to control behaviour ‘ stop that crying, cry-baby!’ just one example. And those of us who drive with our children in the car must be incredibly guarded to avoid the regular name-calling at other road users in moments of frustration or impending danger (or perhaps that really is only me!). Listen to the spectators at a football match or the adults on the picket line of a strike – name-calling is endemic. We need to be very careful what we model!
One solution is to help children to recognise their strong emotions and to pre-empt frustration. We also need to listen sensitively to what our children are telling us is upsetting them and of course, believe them! Children need to feel reassured that they are loved and cared for no matter what. That they have worth.
Both the victim and the perpetrator of this type of bullying need help. The one to develop assertive confidence to deflect this kind of abuse, the other to develop more appropriate social skills! Here conflict resolution provides the best starting point for helping children to resolve their difficulties together. Adults should help to facilitate dialogue between each party and agree compromise, modelling more appropriate social behaviours.
Names are powerfully evocative. We choose the names of our child with a great deal of thought and we allow our children to grow into their name with pride. And I, for one, would much rather be a rose than a dandelion!