The setting for this paper is RishiValley School, a co-educational school with about 350 children between the ages of 8 and 18. The focus is on the Middle School (classes 6-8) where there are 40-50 children in each of the two sections of each class. As the school is fully residential, the children interact in a wide range of contexts - in class, in their houses, the dining hall, the games field and elsewhere. Close friendships develop, but so do antagonism and isolation. These observations are based largely on my involvement with successive batches of students in Standard 8.
Things often look different to students and teachers in a school. Having played both roles, I am acutely aware of this. But some things never change. Looking back to the time I joined school in the 7th, I vividly remember my first meeting with my future classmates. One of the first things I was asked was what games I played. Last year a new boy in the 8th joined my house. When I took him to his bedroom there were a couple of boys chatting there. As I closed the door behind me I heard one of the veterans ask the new student, 'What games do you play?' The same first question - after all these years. Now, as 15 years ago, an interest and ability in games are factors in determining peer acceptance, at least among boys.
The question suggests to me the extent to which children in a boarding school, in the absence of parents, are thrown together with their peers. This seems especially true of children as they enter the middle years. For the younger ones the influence of the peer group is significantly offset by that of teachers, house-parents and matrons, but some distancing from adults takes place after this time. The peer group then assumes increased importance in the life of the child.
That apparently innocuous question, 15 years later, was not less casually asked. Those who had a natural ability at games won easy acceptance from the group that tended to dominate the class or the house. Those who were less capable, whatever their other merits, had a harder time. I elaborate below five points relating to the issue of peer pressures in the middle years.
Factors influencing acceptability
There is some variety in the factors that act as a touchstone for acceptability. One significant factor common to both girls and boys at school nowadays is a kind of urban sophistication. Among its prominent aspects are ways of speakingand dressing, an interest in the latest in TV, music and the movies. Children who are at ease with these things stand a better chance of fitting in than those who are not. Another factor common to boys and girls is physical maturity. The slow developers are at a relative disadvantage.
There is also the child's popularity with the opposite sex. This can work both ways. Among boys ease of relationship with the opposite sex has sometimes led to being labelled 'sissies' and among girls, to resentment or the charge of being flirtatious. On the other hand, ease with the opposite sex has at times been of advantage to children who for some reason are not settled amid their own sex. For boys, proficiency at games is seen as a significant measure of worth. Intellectual prowess is respected, but not as highly valued. Perhaps the reverse is true for girls.
The dominant sub-group
There is often a dominant sub-group that tends to establish these criteria. The dominance exerted by this group is usually considerable. It can be obvious in extreme cases, even expressing itself in physical violence, but more often it takes the shape of collective teasing, taunts or threats directed against the nonconformists and misfits. Among girls it has taken the form of comments on social background, dress-sense and academic backwardness, sometimes amounting to sustained harassment.
In some classes the dominance has been mild, even non-existent. This may be the case with a group of children who happen to be friends - prominent in class but not seeking to dominate the others. This isn't the norm, however, and the domination is often unconscious. Children can feel the need to measure up to certain perceived standards even when there is no overt pressure on them to do so.
The effects of acceptance and rejection
Some children seem to move easily into a position of dominance or acceptance by their peer group. This may be because they fulfil some of the acceptance criteria, or because they are low-key, and unlikely to pose a threat to anybody. This easy acceptance does much to make a child feel secure, especially a new student. However, it breeds a certain complacency. One boy, admired for his physique and ability in sports, felt no need to exert himself in any other direction.
And there are children who fail in their effort to win acceptance or suffer a sense of being rejected. Perhaps they violate some of the criteria for acceptance, or perhaps they try too hard to meet them and only manage to generate controversy. The result is anything from extreme loneliness and feelings of inadequacy, to defiance born of a sense that the others must be wrong. In between, one also sees a healthier movement in which, perhaps after some initial turbulence, the child fmds a niche for himself and is eventually able to pursue his own path quite independently. In such cases, however, loneliness and a longing to win wider acceptance are sometimes not far below the surface. A feeling of rejection often drives a child to seek attention and if the feeling is collective, it can lead to the formation of distinct groups within a class.
The middle years are characterised by a rapid physical maturing and early sexual awareness. Relationship with the opposite sex is often a major preoccupation for children at this age, complicated by the fact that girls are by and large more mature physically and perhaps more sophisticated in their emotional responses. There is variety in the way these relationships develop. At one end of the spectrum would be an overt hostility between the sexes, or an apparent indifference that is seldom genuine. At the other end are batches in which girls and boys interact with remarkable freedom, having little difficulty sitting next to each other, sharing material in class, consulting and so on. However, the batch in which this ease was most apparent saw, towards the end of the year, the formation of several 'pairs'. Pair formation and related phenomena like teasing, note-writing, etc. seem to be inevitable. Establishing a pair relationship seems to add to the feeling of self-worth of those involved. It is a source of excitement not least because authority frowns on it. It can adversely affect the child's friendship with others and involvement in routine class activities. Also, since such relationships at this age tend to be short-lived, they are often a source of insecurity. The attitude of the class to the formation of a pair encompasses a range of responses including disapproval, jealousy, gossip and vicarious excitement.
Groupism has been much discussed, among teachers and between teachers and students at various levels; it occurs to some degree in every batch. This has been noticed especially among girls - in instances of very sharp polarisation, members of rival groups are unwilling to sit with, or talk to, each other. In one instance, since the girls in one group were more willing than those in the other to interact with boys, the latter group tended to resent the boys involved and tried to avoid contact with them.
Among boys, the group mentality seems to be less intense. While feeling smay be fairly strong, the identification with a group is perhaps less rigid, and communication between the groups doesn't break down altogether. And yet, for boys and girls, individual identity tends to get submerged where groups operate and there is an overall diminution in the class capacity for meaningful thought and action. For instance, a significant number of students in the 8th choose an activity on the basis of who else has chosen it.
I turn now to the role adults might play to ease these problems of relationship.
What an adult can do for the individual child
Shifting equations within the peer group and some distancing from adults lead to feelings of insecurity. The extent to which children are aware of this insecurity and its causes varies. It appears that much of the insecurity is caused by fears of various kinds - the fear of not being accepted, of being left alone, of standing out or of not standing out, of what others (especially the opposite sex) think of one, and so on. Having broken insecurity down into specific, concrete 'fears-of', it is tempting to believe that one can help a child overcome these fears by discussing them with him or her. Yet in my experience this doesn't seem to work. I have some very tentative suggestions as to why, and ask the following questions.
First, is it valid to suppose that a psychological problem can be overcome by discussing it, especially as we are talking of young people whose powers of reflection and analysis may be relatively undeveloped? Second, in attempting to tackle 'fears-of' rather than fear itself, are we addressing the symptoms rather than the root of the problem? And third, have we really understood the problem by breaking it down analytically? I would think not. While our analysis of the general problem of insecurity may be valid, each specific case is complicated by a host of other factors that also need consideration. One particular child's attitudes are affected by the situation at home where the parents are separating; another child is reserved but his reserve is mistaken for arrogance; yet another is a kleptomaniac, and so on and so forth. Understanding why a child relates to the peer group in a certain manner requires an awareness of such factors, and this is where our problem lies: it is virtually impossible to fathom all the factors relevant to a particular child's difficulties. Our knowledge is bound to be incomplete and so is our analysis.
It may be of use to sit with a child and try to help him look at his situation and examine it for himself. The adult's role in this process has to be that of a sounding board. We need to listen rather than arrive at facile conclusions which may miss the mark. We have to avoid the temptation to generalise, even if the problem seems to be a familiar one. Instead we have to be alert, sensitive to the particular child and the particular problem at hand.
To be an effective sounding-board we have to establish a rapport with all the children in the class or house. We cannot impose our goodwill and determination, in trying to be of use, on children we scarcely know as individuals. We shouldn't even mind if children prefer to discuss their difficulties with other teachers. When thtis happens, it does not necessarily reflect on our qualities as house-parents. For instance, I have found that girls often find it easier to discuss problems of relationship with a male teacher than with their house-mother. Perhaps the opposite is true of boys. At any rate it shouldn't matter who children choose to discuss their problem with as long as there is somebody.
We also have to avoid unrealistic expectations. If Iam not free of fear myself, I can hardly expect to reason anyone out of fear. And there's no easy way to reason children out of the worrying about what their peers think about them, no matter how reasonable one's arguments. We have to recognise with the child that there is a difficulty, that it may not be easy to resolve, and to spur the child on to examine it thoroughly, to understand it, rather than dig out a 'solution'.
One positive way of helping a child troubled by thorny relationships is to try to place the issue in perspective. If we can give a child a sense of the pettiness of peer-politics, for instance, and if we can also fill him or her with enthusiasm for something far removed from that pettiness - music, or a beautiful spot nearby - then the problem may cease to matter quite so much. We can thus help them to examine their situation with greater objectivity.
Sometimes a problem of relationship may be the result of acute self-centredness. So introspection needs to be balanced by a movement outwards. It is vital to stimulate in the child a larger awareness of his environment, including the needs of his peers. We can also help the child see that his predicament does not make him unique or abnormal.
What we can do with the group collectively
The points I have covered so far concern themselves with what the adult may do to help the individual child. But there is also much that we can do with the group collectively. It's often useful for a teacher to call the group together and initiate a dfscussion. Sometimes children feel inhibited speaking in front of a group, but we have noticed that the meeting can help clear the air to some extent, especially when antagonism fmds expression in the presence of a teacher. Also, even if there is no obvious problem, it is worth raising typical issues like groupism or peer pressure for discussion during class teachers' periods, house-meetings and so on. The teacher can also encourage children to take part in activities like folkdance, hikes, class plays to provide informal contexts for interaction and to ease relationships within the peer group.
I have raised questions in the course of this paper, and conclude by raising a few more. Given that we (and the children) are pretty busy, and children of this age-group seem to move away from adults around them, what are the means by which we can establish rapport with every single child? What are the implications of a child's fears where learning is concerned, and what can we do to help? And finally, how can we help bring about a balance between introspection and a more acute awareness of the external world, the inward and outward movements?