Is Every Playground Spat an Example of “Bullying?”

Hi Readers — Here’s a really valuable column because it addresses something that had been nibbling — and biting and punching — its way into parental concern: Bullying.

No one likes bullies or bullying. But why is it suddenly so high on a radar? Why are we talking about it all the time? Is it a question of finally getting the attention it deserves? Or is it getting TOO much attention, the way so many other childhood events are getting too much attention, like the falls toddlers inevitably take? (Now addressed by a number of “safety” devices.) Or the “problem” of friendship that we were talking here a few posts ago (now addressed by the profession of “friendship coaches”)?

So Helene Guldberg writes about bullying and why it’s not always bad. Or, rather, why what we are calling “bullying” isn’t always exactly that, and why it behooves us not to inflate the problem. As Helene writes:

Stamping out bullying, saying no to bullying, zero tolerance on bullying: promises like these are the foundations of every British school’s mandatory anti-bullying policy.

They are sentiments intended to protect pupils from every unpleasant playground experience, from name-calling to physical fights, and reflect the modern obsession with shielding children from every conceivable danger.

But in reality they are robbing them of the opportunity to learn some of life’s most valuable lessons.

There are plenty of campaigners who say that children should be allowed to climb trees, at the risk of breaking a bone. But those of us who believe that children should [also] be allowed to sustain a few emotional bruises in the playground — squabbling, fighting, falling-out and, yes, even being bullied, without the interference of adults — are vilified.


By insisting that bullying is everywhere and that all relationships between children are potentially problematic, it is harder for us to be vigilant about brutality and real threats to children’s long-term health and happiness.

That’s just it: When we “problemize” every imperfection in childhood, we totally lose perspective, fretting about the things we don’t have to fret about, butting in when we’d best butt out, and possibly ignoring — in the tidal wave of worry — the real things we should attend to.

And by the way: When did we decide childhood should be perfect in the first place? Nothing else on earth is. What has compelled us to think anything less than perfection is a terrible tot-hood (and those who don’t provide perfection are terrible parents)? Hmmm. — Lenore

What Happens When Kids Can’t Play

Hello, Readers! We have another guest post today, this one from developmental psychologist Dr. Helene Guldberg, a founder of the wonderful, British, on-line current affairs blog, Spiked ( She’s also author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear. The thing I found most shocking in this post is that you can’t even take photos of any kid other than yours at a birthday party in England anymore.  It’s considered tantamount to porn. Oy.

 By Helene Guldberg

Growing up on the outskirts of Bergen, in Norway, I was given a lot of freedom to roam outside from a very early age. Norwegians have a unique, maybe rather obsessive, love of outdoor pursuits and therefore, whether in sunshine, sleet or snow, we were always building dens, playing on building sites, and having all kinds of adventures in the woods or by the fjord.

As Free-Range Kids readers are well aware, children are today losing out on many childhood experiences that we took for granted. In Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear I show how important unsupervised play is for all aspects of children’s development – their social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Children need to be given space away from adults’ watchful eyes – in order to play, experiment, take risks (within a sensible framework provided by adults), test boundaries, have arguments, fight, and learn how to resolve conflicts. Today, they are increasingly denied these opportunities.

But the blame for this steady erosion of unsupervised play should not be pinned on parents. The root of the problem is not their fears but the fact that parents are continually discouraged from entrusting their children to other adults. In the UK, it is a crime to work with children without first being vetted by the authorities. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, passed into law in 2006, requires that millions of adults whose work involves coming into contact with children must undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks. The message this gives to parents and children is to be suspicious of any adult who comes into contact with young people.

Also, it is almost impossible in Britain today to take photos of one’s children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews in public places if they are surrounded by other children. The rules governing the use of cameras and camera-phones in swimming pools, parks, at children’s parties, school sports days and any other place where children might be present are ubiquitous and strictly enforced. The kind of photos that have traditionally appeared in many a family album are now treated as being akin to potential child pornography.

Ultimately parents will only give children the independence they need if they have sufficient trust in other adults – trust in them not to harm their children, but to look out for them. When we grew up our parents assumed that if we got into trouble, other adults – often strangers – would help out. Today that trust does not exist – or, at least, it has been seriously damaged by government policy, media debate and a rising culture of suspicion towards adults’ motives.

Only by challenging the safety-obsessed culture that depicts every adult as a potential threat can we start to build a better future – and present — for our children and ourselves.
Dr Helene Guldberg’s book, Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, is available on Amazon: