Climbers not among them. Violence as the search for boundaries

Mathias Wais

Three young people in a class 11 are strolling through the city park. A boy of about the same age comes towards them, his eyes and hands occupied with his smartphone. “Nice one. Let’s see.” The boy tries to avoid them. Grinning, as he will subsequently testify, the young people first push him about, then start hitting him. As he falls to the ground, they kick him. The statements of the young people to the police as to their reason for attacking the boy do not get beyond words such as “no reason”, “just happened” and “he looked such an idiot”.

Some pupils of a class 6 place nails under the tyre of their teacher so that they puncture it as he drives off. Why? “He’s always so unfair.” A ten-year-old boy squats in the bushes near an arterial road throwing pebbles at passing cars, then also at a cyclist. Why? “Just wanted to see what happens.”

This kind of aggression and violence by young people or children appears to have no motive, or at most an accidental one arising out of the situation: “He looked such an idiot.” Neither does psychosocial violence, which tends to be the domaine of girls and strikes to hurt not with fists but words, appear any less senseless.

In the tram: five girls sit together chatting happily. A boy, about 14 years old, sits nearby. Suddenly, for no obvious reason, one of the girls says in a stage whisper intended to be loud enough to make sure the boy hears: “Look at the size of his trousers. Do you think he’s still in nappies?” Giggles. Then: “Bet he’s a  mummy’s boy. Bet she buys his clothes for him.” And so it continues until the boy escapes off the tram at the next stop.

What is missing?

Violence out of boredom? Because of a lack of challenge? Simply “no reason”? What do young people and children who cross boundaries in the way described lack? My conclusion after 30 years of educational counselling: at first sight, nothing! Subjectively, when we get to know them better, they don’t seem to lack anything. Is that the problem? But if we take further observations and reports from the young people or their parents into account, it becomes evident that there is something after all which is lacking:

Family M. is planning its summer holidays. Bali und Tunesia are on the short list. Five-year-old daughter Marlene is asked: “Do you want to go to Bali or Tunesia for your holiday?” The little one says “Bali” because she likes the sound of the word better. Arrived in Bali, it is muggy in the hotel with a lot of people milling about. Marlene does nothing but whine. Even before they have unpacked their bags, the parents have a gentle talk with their daughter during which she blurts in tears: “I would rather go to Tunesia.”

The married couple S. has divorced. Father – the mother tells her 12-year-old son – has left “us”. She initiates him into the problems of and her frustrations in the marriage. She reveals to him the “true face” of his father – “he always lied” – turns her son into her confidante, her buddy, lifts him to the adult level.

At the swimming pool: little Fiona is prickly at the till. She wants to have the smart bathing sandals which are displayed there. Mother: “But they’re expensive.” Fiona: “But I want them.” Mother: “But you know that on all other occasions we give you what you want.”

Well, that is probably where the problem lies.

Many children and young people grow up in a certain way of being spoiled, of being protected, indeed of cosseting which it appears does not do them any good. “Spoiling” is not here meant primarily in a material sense. Rather, they grow up without boundaries, over-protected, treated like adults.

The most basic and self-evident rules are not enforced but discussed. Whether you brush your teeth, whether you take on small tasks for the family, indeed, whether homework should be done because you’re tired after the party yesterday evening is discussed at great length. This can no longer be called upbringing.

When everything is made of rubber

If the parents are asked why they put up with this, they respond often quite proudly: “We take our daughter, our son very seriously.” But this so-called taking seriously leads to every tiniest emotional flatulence being analysed together with the child in a (pseudo) psychological way – in long conversations in which the child or young person will occassionally condescend to take part.

These children and young people grow up within rubber walls. Which is to say that rules and boundaries which are not maintained by the parents but negotiated do not provide security. A house in which we feel secure has firm walls. The wall limits what I can do but also gives me security and protection. If the walls are made of rubber, if they give way or dissolve completely, that might boost my ego but does not give me support and protection.

For a long time it has been possible to observe a loss of respect in children and young people who stand out because of their apparently senseless violence. Respect also marks a boundary. The boundary in which the other has their dignity. Of course there is not just one cause for this development. Media, Facebook, the peergroup, social trends, disinhibition through the anonymity of the Internet play a part here as much as a spoiled upbringing.

The father of one of the boys who put the nails under their teacher’s tyres was, incidentally, well-known throughout the school for automatically taking his son’s side in any dispute. Even when the boy complained at home about too much homework the father phoned the teacher – in the presence of his son – and berated him for being a bad teacher. How is a child supposed to keep their natural respect for their teacher under such circumstances?

The golden cage of taking children pseudo seriously

We are privileged in Waldorf education to be able to base our actions on a spiritual image of the human being. Education is to address the core of the child’s being in such a way that this core being can be realised on earth and contribute the talents it has brought along. In addressing this I, which is only just beginning to develop, this core being must be challenged.

Spoiling and indulging it, taking it pseudo seriously in a way which assumes that the I of the child is already complete – also through a buddy education – means that this core being is not addressed but rather locked into a golden cage. The necessary challenge occurs through setting boundaries as much as through motivation which is appropriate for age and personality  to learn about our own boundaries and, as appropriate, expand them.

An education without firm boundaries leads to a basic lack of challenge, an existential boredome. The tendency to cross boundaries grows to the extent that boundaries are not set out and asserted. The, at first sight, senseless and motiveless violence thus turns out to be the – of course unconscious – search for boundaries.

Personality, the personality which is equally free as much as with a sense of responsibility, arises not through wish-fulfilment but through overcoming ourselves. Whether this lies in sport – among young people perhaps even in extreme sport – or in the social field or environmental protection must be discovered in a way appropriate for age and the individual.

For children the role model still counts. What does the child experience at home with regard to respect for other people? Can it experience through the example of the parents that engagement in the environmental field, for example, can be a satisfying challenge?

Where do the personal challenges lie?

What can be done? Is there a recipe? If there is, it resides from the perspective of prevention in the field of the appropriate challenge and suitable tasks. If I look back at the children and young people referred to here whom I learnt to know in educational counseling, I notice that there was not a single one among them who systematically pursued a personal challenge. Glider pilots, youth firefighters, canoeists, musicians or climbers were not among them.

And when the horse has bolted and the police knock on the door? The hard nut to crack for the educational consultant is not the children and young people but their now despondent and upset parents: “But he’s got everything.”

Parents find it difficult in this situation to adjust their thinking. More difficult than the young people. With the latter, if one can get into discussion with them, it is quite easy to paint a picture as to where their path of senselessly crossing boundaries might lead. I don’t ask about the motives for violence but its goals. “Look for the boundaries in yourself, then you won’t need to cross the boundaries of others.” That, broadly, is the message.

It is not always heard. Or it is heard at a later time: when vocational training starts or when the first firm relationship demands responsibility and commitment. “Society”, life itself contribute to the education of these young people. But there is one thing that should not be done: excluding them or branding them as notorious troublemakers. “For they know not what they do” is rarely more appropriate than here.

About the author: Mathias Wais was a member of staff at the “Child, Adolescent and Adult Advice Centre” in Dortmund.