A Course In Cooperation
Should Be Part Of Every School's Curriculum

When I was five years old, sometimes my mother tried to fight my battles for me.

When the girl next door and I got into an altercation, mom got on the phone. While she and the other mom were heating up the telephone wires, my friend and I were past our snit and playing peacefully. It’s hard for parents to know when to intervene in their children’s battles, and when to let them work it out themselves.

When my son was five, he came home crying because some other kids had ripped his pictures during the ride home on the bus. I tried to teach him to fight back. He was a little guy, and perhaps a bit too sensitive. I told him, 'even very big kids don’t like to get bitten by a little mosquito'. I wasn’t telling him to bite, but to hit back. He couldn’t hit as hard as the bigger boys could, but even a small "ouch" might get the message across.

When he was ten and the bullying still hadn’t stopped, I wanted to intervene by talking to school officials. My son said, "No, that’ll only make matters worse. If they find out my mother has to fight my battles, they’ll get even nastier." I thought sadly, perhaps he’s right. My intervention could make matters worse. I knew something had to be done, I just didn’t know what, and who should do it.

I don’t think bullies are better off than victims. They may experience a momentary rush of adrenaline when they make the smaller, weaker and more sensitive child cry. They may have a fleeting moment of victory when their friends laugh and slap them on the back as though they were heroes, and a sense of power when the authorities helplessly look the other way. I think the little bullies are angry, scared, and feeling out of control. What kind of scary place must the world look like to a ten year old who can get away with intimidating his peers and even the adults who are supposed to provide security and order? After all little bullies are often bullied by bigger ones. If nobody can control ten-year-olds, who will protect them?

Bullies don’t always use physical force, and bullying is not restricted to one gender or the other. Girls can be monstrous masters of the game called clique. Three or four girls pick out a victim and use ridicule and shunning to intimidate her.

Growing up, figuring out how the world works and what’s our place in it can be a painful process. Kids need to learn how to fend for themselves, how to get along with their peers, and ultimately how to succeed in the world. It’s hard to know when to intervene and when to let them work it out for themselves. Sometimes, adults have to rescue the victims and put the bullies in their place. Sometimes, they have to pay attention to the bullies, to help them get their social needs met in more appropriate and satisfying ways.

Children can’t always rely on authorities however, to solve their problems, to provide formal sanctions for misbehaviors, to mediate their conflicts, and to be fair in their judgments. But, just telling them to work it out for themselves seems a little irresponsible. Children, bullies and victims, have to be taught the social skills they need, and these skills include the ability to get along with one another, regardless of whether or not the like each other, understand each other or agree with each other.

There are some fine school programs that promote tolerance through understanding things from the other person’s point of view. Understanding and agreement between people is certainly a worthy goal to promote. Unfortunately understanding doesn’t always equal agreement or even respect for differences. Sometimes the more we understand, the more we find out we disagree. Let’s face it, we’re never going to reach understanding and agreement with everyone. Regardless of agreement or understanding however, children, and adults still need to get along with one another.

Children, bullies and victims, can learn through practice and experience that it’s in their best interest to cooperate. They can learn to abide by the rules of fair play regardless of different cultures, religions, skin color, or socioeconomic circumstances.

Parents offer their children excellent advice when they tell them to mind their own business and stay away from trouble, or to turn the other cheek, to accept an apology from an offender and get on with it. Many advise them to seek help from an adult when they have been abused or fear they will be abused. Some children are taught, an eye for an eye, not to start a fight, but to defend themselves when necessary. Others are told to be assertive and even aggressive in letting others know where they stand. Some children are taught they should be nice to others and others will be nice in return. This is all good advice, but no one strategy will work under all circumstances. Many children don’t know when or how to use which strategy. It can get pretty complicated for them. Teaching children to fend for themselves is a big job. Parents could use some help.

Cooperation evolves naturally over time when people who interact with each other on a regular basis treat each other fairly. A classroom setting where children are systematically taught the social skills of cooperation, a safe place monitored by adults where they can practice these skills with each other, can provide an ideal environment for valuable interactive learning to occur, and for cooperation to evolve.

With the potential for violence in our schools escalating to the point of children being maimed and killed, teaching the survival skills of cooperation is so important that it should be a part of every school’s curriculum.

    —M. LaCourt