Back in school days, when I was a kid, there was a strict zero tolerance policy towards children who talk in class when the teacher is talking or children who talk without a teacher’s permission. If you were caught talking, even if it was just a whisper, you’d be punished and made to stand in class. Even though I was a quiet student most of the time, I was still caught once, and the other time I was punished when a classmate accused me of talking when I was merely mouthing. As a child, it made me think that the adult world must be disciplined and quiet. Oh how I was deceived! When I think about it now, I wonder what the big fuss was about. I have been attending a few lectures in the university given by my colleague. On one occasion, during a break, a student approached my colleague and requested her to speak up because she found it difficult to hear as other people were whispering behind. I find it amusing that instead of asking the fellow classmates to stop whispering, this student thought it would be more appropriate to ask my colleague to speak louder. Isn’t it ironic that a behaviour I would have been punished for if I were a child is deemed acceptable and will be tolerated if done by an adult? I used to think it was a case of kids behaving badly, but sadly, I think it is the adults who are supposed to be role models behaving badly.
For the same reason, I get really skeptical when anyone or research suggests that schools could prevent bullying by encouraging peer bystanders to intervene. Don’t get me wrong, I think we should teach them the skills and encourage them to intervene but I don’t think this alone will prevent bullying. I said this not because I think kids are incapable of intervening. I said this mainly because I lack the confidence in adults to set a good example. By adults, I don’t mean teachers specifically, I mean adults in general. What I’m saying is it is not merely the responsibility of teachers and parents but everyone in this society to set an example and I have no idea what kind of example we adults in this society is giving to the younger generation.
I inadvertently conducted my own little social experiment when I was in Melbourne, as we were travelling on the metropolitan train to catch the airport shuttle. When you travel on the trains in Singapore and Hong Kong, the screen doors open automatically at each stop, regardless whether there is any passenger entering or exiting. Trains in Australia (and I believe other countries) work differently. I once missed my station whilst travelling on the regional train in New South Wales because I didn’t notice that I had to press the button to open the door. I thought I’ve learnt my lesson but my recent trip to Melbourne taught me another lesson. As we approached our station, we pushed our luggage out and stood to wait for the door to open. I noticed the door doesn’t have a button so I made the mistake of assuming that the door will open automatically. I started to panic when I saw that we have reached our station but the doors weren’t opening. I hurried to the next door to see if it would open. It didn’t. There were more than ten other passengers in the train compartment but none of them was getting off and while they saw us trying to get out, none of them stood up from their seats to offer help. We missed our station in the end. I was feeling embarrassed but there was nothing much I could do, I was just hoping we could manage to get out at the next station. Just as we were standing there with our luggage and looking helpless, an Asian young lady turned around from her seat and raised both hands to indicate that we had to grab and push the door handle to open it. If I had stayed calm and less panicky, I might be able to read the words on the screen doors which would have told me how to operate the doors. The advice came a bit late but I was still grateful for that lady nonetheless. I’ve always been interested in social psychology and research on bystander effect has suggested that individuals are less likely to offer help when others are present so I wasn’t surprised that none of the passengers offered to help. Moreover, we were in the city and city-dwellers tend to be colder. My disappointment stems from the fact that I was in a country I dream of moving to.
If we can’t rely on adults to intervene when help is needed, how are we going to teach that to our younger generation?
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