‘Did anyone in your group volunteer when he asked who has a life changing story to share?’
My sons’ are discussing today’s guest speaker. Their school regularly invites people to challenge then inspire a hall packed with row upon row of teenage boys. These speakers are frequently survivors of horrendous life experiences. They talk of their liberation from bullying, physical disability, of overcoming life expectations. Stories imbued with strategies for their audience. ‘They speak to remind themselves what to do,’ observed one son.
But it was this speaker’s question of the audience rather than his particular story that led tonight’s discussion. My son is momentarily reflective. ‘I should have talked about that boy in year 4, at my old school. That was a life changer for me.’
I know that story: boy bullied for, well sadly a familiar list – size, cultural background, ease with which his classmates could rile him; my son’s furious outrage and refusal to remain silent; the subsequent public shaming of victim, bullies, my son, at a special school assembly. What, if indeed anything, this assembly achieved though was not being debated tonight.
‘I should have said the behaviour of my friends.’ Even now, 4 years later I watch his jaw set, his hands clench. He’s still incredulous. These boys were his friends; they played soccer and handball at lunchtime. They would whenever possible meet on a Minecraft server at home. But why was it a life changer?
‘You think you know your friends and you don’t,’ he said. ‘Yeah they’re cowards,’ big brother lobs in unhelpfully. ‘They’re griefers. You know that. I don’t know why you’re still friends with them. Son number two grimaces, ‘I tell them not to now. I won’t game with them if they don’t stop!’
There it is: his life changer in action. I’d call it integrity. But how did this occur? That’s the real question. What happened that gave son number two the confidence to confront his friends, survive their reply – kicking, knocking him to the ground and jumping on his head, verbal abuse – and then confront his school?
‘I couldn’t watch my friends physically hurt another kid.’ He pondered. Such daily behavior was still inexplicable. ‘I realized that if my friends could humiliate a classmate, then anyone could be a bully. I couldn’t be a silent witness.’
‘You have to speak up,’ he said. ‘It’s not always easy to do.’ He’s right. Anyone can be a bully, or victim, or passive bystander. Most of us, if we’re truly reflective, have experienced some form of bullying behavior. It’s what we do next that determines the impact on our lives and our relationships. And what we do is inextricably twined with our individual self-efficacy and morals.
Tonight’s dinner conversation, exquisitely unscripted, was a glimpse into two teenagers burgeoning understanding of community. My sons’ were analyzing and reflecting on where todays motivational speakers experience slotted into their schema. Now they were the ones discussing manipulation and abuse of peers; school rules, regulations, what their mates did. But more than this – I was watching them calibrate their moral codes. They were evaluating how to be part of their social networks: peers, school, community, as empathetic citizens, with integrity.
There had been no evidence of such reflection barely 40 minutes earlier. Table thumping, shouting and very loud noises had emanated from the sitting room. Teenagers playing the latest permitted online first-person shooter game. They argue this game requires cooperative team work, strategy and tactics. I see an inability to disconnect. I challenge them. Just stop gaming. Maybe my timing is poor. It used to work. Don’t worry they say – it’s just a game.
Now they explain, patiently. There are systems in place, but you can manipulate the rules to achieve your goal. You can get banned from the server, but given this is basically a first-person shooter game, there is greater tolerance of behavior. It’s different to school. Son number two elaborates – primary students rely on their school community to protect and teach them. Online gaming does not have that protection. Neither do all schools, observes son number one. But irrespective of domain, navigation and success takes more than being told what to do.
My sons argue that the depth of learning required for any particular gaming prowess is no different to the complex thinking skills required to critically evaluate one of their novels.
Online gaming involves connecting too, socializing within a community albeit a specific microcosm. Gaming, in its many and developing guises is one of the myriad of ways we interact with each other.
But who grabs that teaching moment during online games? Experiencing internal conflict between social order, rules, and savagery is part of childhood – our children increasingly do so online rather than on the streets or with a close reading of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It’s new for us. You know though, we have to grab that moment – that thought and discuss it without dictating – we need to learn to negotiate online worlds too.
But perhaps after the game has finished.