If You Hurt My Feelings You Must Be Punished – The New Standard in Learning Institutions
Several children are in the office having engaged in significant name calling out on the playground. The “n” word as well as vulgar slurs and swearing are included in the mix. A parent has heard about the language used and is demanding the children responsible receive a strong consequence – at least a suspension. The children are 7 and 8 years old.
Two children are playing on the playground and one child swings his body towards the other child who falls and seriously injures his head, requiring emergency care and stitches. The parents seek legal council and are disappointed they could not punish the child or the family for the accident. Both boys were 6 years old.
There is a growing movement happening in learning institutions – if your feelings are hurt, you don’t talk it out, you get self righteous indignation and seek retribution.
In an article in The Atlantic Jonathan Haidt an American social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business and Greg Lukianic, CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education write about a new phenomenon in universities, in particular, ones that have organizations that protect minority groups. Professors are now required to provide trigger warnings in their classes, essentially a heads up to their students that sensitive material may be presented around a sensitive issue, for example around physical abuse in the novel The Great Gatsby, and students who have been victims of violence can choose to avoid the lesson so as to avoid potential traumatization.
The article discusses some of the reasons why this hypersensitive environment has come to pass: the polarization of the left and right wings of American government, the change of child rearing practices post 1975 after publicized child abductions and cable TV coverage of child abductions created a culture of fear that led to parents supervising their children to a much greater degree, and the “everybody wins” culture within schools.
According to Lukianic and Haidt, the consequence of all these practices has led to a culture of young adults who now believe that when they experience an offence or a hurt, the people around them are accountable for “not making them feel bad.”
In a podcast with Sam Harris, Haidt states, “college students do not have the practice of taking care of their social emotional needs. When they encounter painful conversations, it hurts. Instead of dealing with the person directly, they go straight to their dean or diversity officer and report the injustice.” The phenomena is not just happening at liberal universities in the U.S.A. As the two examples at the beginning of the blog suggest, discussions around holding people accountable for “making someone feel bad” have landed with small children in Elementary schools.
Children will make mistakes. They will get angry and find ways and words that will maximize the pain on the person who hurt them. They will look for vulnerabilities and go after them. This is not okay. But punishing them or as I have seen in some communities, punishing the parents, does not solve the problem. We need to teach children how to manage their anger. This does not mean that we stifle the conversation. In fact, we must do the opposite. We need to create those safe enough to be dangerous spaces. We have to rehearse conflict, uncomfortable situations and failure.
And of course, this is not just about children. Parents, Administrators and teachers make mistakes too. If the price for disrespect, discomfort or failure is public shaming, we eliminate the very environments that build resilience, community and confidence. Good schools don’t eliminate disrespect, discomfort or failure. Good schools create environments that make it safe enough to tackle and practice and rehearse what to do when you are feeling disrespected, or what to do when you are uncomfortable or what to do when you fail.
The Youth and Family Worker and myself went to the classrooms where the name calling and offensive words were used. Along with the classroom teacher, we addressed what was behind the disrespect and we are working together, to provide the students with the discipline and the practice to manage their feelings and conflicts. The Principal addressed the concerns with the parent and reminded them that our job is to teach them appropriate behaviour. It is work. It is over the long run.
And ideally, our educational institutions create the environment to work with uncomfortable or hurt feelings rather than create policy that handicaps us by avoiding the practice altogether.