Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

A Few Good Rules


I’ve just finished reading Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult’s version of the American school shooting phenomenon, in which she attributes the shooter’s act of vengeance to years of systematic bullying. Picoult spins a good tale, broad, encompassing, but never deep. Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, deals with the same subject matter – what makes a teenage murderer, how a community responds, how parents of a murderer feel – but far more provocatively and urgently. Her tale of a mother who fails, despite every good intention, to love her unlovable child, is chilling. If I had to choose between the two, I would recommend the latter. I admire Shriver’s brutal honesty and her determination to tackle deeply unpleasant topics.

Shriver’s story posits that Kevin, the teenage murderer, arrives on the planet evil. This alone, without the story’s horrific denouement, is hard to digest. We want to believe that babies are innocent, until we slowly imprint our weaknesses on them. We want to believe that the parents of an amoral child did their best to teach him. And we certainly want to believe that such a child might take revenge his schoolmates but never on his own family.

The murderer in Picoult’s tale starts out as an ordinary child, perhaps one who is more sensitive than most. On his first day of kindergarten, the bullying begins and it never stops. Each day at school is one of humiliation, shame and beatings. One part of the story I found hard to accept is that the adults around him, his parents and his teachers, are never aware of the extent of the bullying. His parents try to make him more acceptable to his peers by forcing him to play soccer, but continually compare him to his brother Josh who is socially competent, academic and sporty. Josh also teases his brother at school, calling him a “freak”, and how this fails to pan out in the family is never addressed.

In comparison to Shriver’s meaty broth, Picoult’s novel is a thin gruel, competent but never entirely satisfying. However, it did make me think a little more about bullying and how children loathe difference. When Lily arrived in her little German school class last year, she was swiftly dumped by the one child from her own kindergarten (they have since reconciled) and was left to face the hordes on her own. After two weeks of hearing that no-one wanted to play with her at break-time, I went on a playdate offensive, inviting children round, baking welcoming muffins and letting them see that while Lily may be a little different from the German norm in that she comes from an English/South African background, she is loved and cherished just like they are. Now she has lovely little friends, from whom she remains slightly independent, as is her way. Had I left it, perhaps she would have managed on her own, but perhaps she would not have. I’m just glad I acted swiftly.

However, with bullying on my mind, it was interesting that she came home today with list of rules for good behaviour at school. The children have cut them out and stuck them in their work books, and they are discussing them in class with their teacher. The rules are:

We listen to each other, and to the teacher

We don’t laugh at anyone when they make a mistake

We don’t blame each other

We help each other

We don’t run in the classroom, only in the playground

We speak politely to each other

We let each other finish our sentences

We keep our desks tidy

We work quietly, so as not to disturb each other

We solve our conflicts without violence

We wait our turn quietly

We put up our hands when we want to speak

I don’t know if this is school policy, or just the policy of Lily’s teacher, but I think they are a great set of principles, ones according to which I’d be happy to raise my children.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

15 thoughts on “A Few Good Rules

  1. Did Lily say whether or not the children had had a say in devising these rules? This is now quite common practice in UK primary classrooms and I have to say that as long as they are fairly and consistently enforced it seems to work very well.

  2. Those are rules that everyone should live by, even adults! Well, except maybe for putting a hand up when you want to speak. 😉

    I read Shriver’s book a couple years ago when I was newly pregnant and it was a great read. It made me worry for a month non-stop about giving birth to Satan’s spawn though.

  3. I’m glad the muffin offensive worked so well. It has to be top of the list of parental anxiety when your children head off into the world of school and have to stand on their own two feet. I’ve heaved sighs of relief as each of the first two gradually found their feet and wrestled with the social complexity of school friendships. Now I just have our youngest to launch into kindergarten and I still worry.

  4. I like those rules. Seems that adults need to use these too in the work place. Especially #1! (replace teacher with boss) :o)

  5. When I was bullied (all the way through school because I was always “the new girl”) everybody told me it was my fault. I mean, kids would come up and punch me in the face and this was my fault for “not making more of an effort to fit in”. That was as well as the hate letters and all the psychological stuff that went on. I’m so glad schools are taking this issue seriously nowadays and that you stepped in to help Lily. If Kiko gets bullied at school I will be doing the same and will never EVER put the blame back on him. I’m hardly a gun-toting maniac but “not been taken seriously” gets me so fired up and I wonder if that’s where my obsessive desire to “prove myself” comes from.

  6. I meant “not being taken seriously” – duh! Too early in the morning…

  7. I compared those two books when I read “Nineteen Minutes” too, much in the same way. Picoult’s book was just too slick and facile, compared to Shriver’s. And I hate Picoult’s twist endings – they just feel so contrived. (And yet I read her books anyway, so I suppose I do enjoy them, despite the irritations).

  8. Funny, I just finished reading Picoult’s Plain Truth, which takes place in Amish country, where I’ll be living as of this week, and although I found it interesting and compelling, I ultimately felt it was too “pat.” Still, I found myself wondering if I shouldn’t read more by her next time I’m at the beach. Meanwhile, I love Lily’s classroom rules, except “all working quietly so as not to disturb others.” I think kids should work collaboratively (with all those other great rules like letting others finish their sentences and not laughing at those who make mistakes), which often means working quite loudly, but they get so excited about what they’re doing, which I’m sure leads to great learning.

  9. I was one of the bullied. I was too different. Our family was different. I think adults often do not believe how bad it can be. I am so glad that you stepped in with the muffin offensive, and that it was successful.

    I would only add one rule to that lovely list:

    We use the names people want us to when we talk to them.

  10. Those are good rules, very close to what I try to inculcate here at home! (Except for putting up hands before speaking.) Very close to the principles of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

    I was never truly bullied. Just some teasing for being a nerdy, overweight kid with glasses. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be treated that way and have no support from adults.

  11. It seems that creating a set of rules is something that most grade schools classes do in Germany. The rules do vary somewhat, since the class creates them. If I remember correctly, my son’s class had about ten rules and my daughter about five. In the end, they just want the children to realize they are responsible for the own behavior and their behavior affects others.

    Charlotte, can I put this post in the RTB?

  12. I like the idea of a class coming up with its own rules; that’s kind of interesting. But wherever those rules came from — they make a lot of sense!

  13. i just went to my 20th high school reunion and among other things we did a tour of our old school – spooky how some things don’t change at all. but there was a list similar to your daughter’s hung up in some of the classrooms, i couldn’t tell if it was the same, but very similar at least.
    when i was still in school we didn’t have something like this, but i think it’s a great idea and the rules make perfect sense!

  14. Great list. I’ll have to dig out dudelet’s nursery rules (which struck me as utterly terrifying) for comparison. The Shriver book is yet another one I need to add to my endless ‘to-do’ list…

  15. I realise I am a little late to the party but I just wanted to say a) completely agree with you about Lionel Shriver’s book which I thought was excellent, b) I am not sure I will bother with Picoult’s and c) what a fantastic set of rules to live by.

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