I do, in fact, care who started it

The great Randall Munroe takes on one of the classic Stupid Things Adults Say to Children:


The “If all your friends …” bit always bugged me. It’s closely related to the teacher-favorite “It doesn’t matter if everyone else was doing it.”

Teachers love to pull that one on the one kid they’ve singled out as “an example.” So the whole class is talking or disrupting or whatever and they focus on one child to bear the brunt of the punishment. The kid protests that everyone else was doing the same thing and the teacher says that doesn’t matter.

Of course it matters. It matters a great deal. It suggests that the rule isn’t really a rule at all, merely a pretext. Arbitrary and selective justice is not justice. The kid is right. He or she is a fifth-grader, and the kids who get singled out like that aren’t usually the best students in the fifth grade, so they probably aren’t able to articulate why what the teacher is saying is horribly wrong, but it still is wrong. And the kids know it.

Even worse is another favorite of teachers or other adults breaking up fights between kids: “I don’t care who started it.”

Really? You don’t care who started it? You don’t find that morally significant at all? You don’t find the distinction between aggression and self-defense worth considering in evaluating the situation?

St. Augustine cared who started it. That was, for him, a major factor in whether or not war could be considered justifiable.

But teachers don’t care about St. Augustine, and they don’t care who started it.

Again, the kids probably can’t articulate why what the adults are saying there is wrong, but it’s still wrong. Utterly wrong.

Teaching kids that aggression and defense are morally indistinct is wrong. Teaching kids that rules retain their legitimacy when selectively enforced is wrong.

Yeah, I know, all the other teachers are saying the same thing to their students. But if all the other teachers jumped off a bridge …?

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  • Jurgan

    I disagree.  The “everyone else is doing it” is usually used as a way of stalling the teacher or confusing him.  In my experience, when I’m hearing this excuse, I’m already turning to another student to say the exact same thing.

  • Baby_Raptor

    The sad thing is, teachers often use “I don’t care who started it” as a way to sneakily get out of punishing the person actually causing the problem because they agree with them. It doesn’t matter that Billy was calling Tim gay slurs, because the teacher agrees that gays are awful. So by saying “I don’t care who started it, you threw the punches” he/she gets to tacitly agree with the bullying. 

  • Fusina

    As a parent, sometimes I care who started it, sometimes I don’t. It depends. A lot of the time, I make my kids sort it out themselves. Only words, once it devolves into physical damage, I step in. I make sure that if I do, the results are pleasing to neither entirely. The hardest one is to stop the “Why aren’t you punishing him/her? They were just as culpable,” because I don’t do the punishments to please the other kid. None of their business how the other is treated is the line I most often use.

    Sometimes I think Solomon had it easy.

  • Splitting Image

    The problem is that a parent or a teacher very often only gets involved in an altercation after several rounds of escalation, making it difficult to determine who “started” it.

  • Jim Roberts

    My boys are 10 and 6. When I’m in the kitchen and I hear a sudden cry of pain from the living room and run in to find that the eldest has the youngest in a chokehold, I really don’t care who started it. The eldest may be right that his younger brother punched him and that started the whole brawl, but that doesn’t matter – his reaction was as wrong as his brother’s action, and he knows it. Neither act was just.

  • Aiwhelan

    Yes to this. Fred has brought up this idea before, and all it tells me is he has never been a teacher.  Usually there are two other factors involved that he’s ignoring:
    1. I need to get them all to stop. They ignore whatever I address to the class as a whole, so I need to talk to each student or group of them. I care that they’re all misbehaving, but I have to start somewhere.
    2. Part of what we teach in schools is character, and that includes “Just because your friend is throwing pens/shouting/has his phone out doesn’t mean you are not responsible for your own actions.” These are school-wide rules, enforced in every lesson since their first day there.

  • Fred, have I told you how much I love this blog lately?

  • Jurgan

    As for “I don’t care who started it,” what that’s usually talking about is escalation.  One student calls the other stupid, the other says “you’re gay,” then “your momma’s fat,” “your mom’s a whore,” “fuck you,” etc., and suddenly we’re at blows.  I don’t think the first kid is wholly responsible because he said “you’re stupid,” because both sides escalated the conflict when either one could have simply not responded.  It’s rare that you get one student walk up to another and punch him for no reason- typically it’s a series of petty insults that escalate into a fight.  Scale this up to a war analogy: When ten million people die in World War I, it really doesn’t matter that it started with a Serbian assassin shooting an archduke- all the countries involved had their own reasons for going to war and they were all responsible.  From my experience, both of these excuses are not genuine attempts at finding justice but rather attempts to obfuscate and avoid consequences.

  •  “The hardest one is to stop the “Why aren’t you punishing him/her? They
    were just as culpable,” because I don’t do the punishments to please the
    other kid.”

    Say I (aged 10 or so) and another kid, let’s call him Timmy, are both doing the same thing. I get punished and Timmy does not. Clearly the rule isn’t just “don’t do that thing”, or else Timmy would be in trouble. Without further explanation, I’m likely to conclude that the rule is “don’t be me and do that thing”, since that’s the difference: I’m me and Timmy is Timmy. I’m then likely to conclude that the teacher just hates me personally and wants me to suffer. I’m also likely to conclude that I need to get revenge on Timmy for pointing out how much the teacher hates me.

    It’s not about “pleasing the other kid”.

  • Becca Stareyes

    A problem comes when kids figure out how to ‘game the system’.  My little brother was bullied in middle school. Most of the bullies were aware enough of teachers to limit their activity to when they were unobserved. My little brother, who has autism, generally wasn’t aware of his surroundings in the same way (he acted the same regardless of who was watching). I don’t know who escalated the conflict from verbal teasing to violence, but my brother was usually the one caught and punished for it. 

    The lesson my brother learned was that he couldn’t go to the teachers if he was being bullied, because they would blame him. Which, I imagine, is exactly what adults don’t want to happen: most teachers know they don’t have eyes everywhere, so they need students to come to them. 

  • Matthias

    While I fully disagree about selectively enforced rules, I can’t say the same about “I don’t care who started it”.

    Because when an adult/teacher comes along he usually has enough strenght to break up the fight. Violence whether defensive or aggressive is no longer needed. Once further damage is thus prevented it is possible to calmly figure out who started it and punish the guilty party.

    Now obviously the same prinicple cannot apply to wars, because there no one is sufficiently strong to break up the fight immediatly and thus violence against the aggressor is justified.

  • FDChief

    The problem usual is just what everyone has pointed out – that coming late to the scene the teacher has only the word of the kids involved who started what.  And the deal isn’t so much punishing the offenders as getting the classroom back under control so the learning can resume.  Hence the whole not-caring-who-started-it.

     The one effective “solution” to this I ever encountered was the one the Army used when I was a trainee; “collective punishment”, the idea being that you succeeded or failed as a unit.   So if your sergeant caught everybody goofing off or horsing around EVERYBODY did pushups, because you had ALL failed; the originators because they started it, and the followers for going along and not reminding everyone else to knock it off.

    It was unjust and arbitrary.  But it worked.

  • What always got to me was, “Life’s not fair.”  It’s true, and an important lesson to learn, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it pulled out in a situation where the lesson wasn’t, “So therefore you are free to be as unfair as you want to be with no ill effects provided that you have power over the person you are being unfair toward, as I now have power over you.  Life is not fair, therefore all bullying everywhere is justified until a bigger bully decides to bully the first bully into stopping.”

    Because whenever I see it used it goes like this:
    Child: [What you did] isn’t fair.
    Adult: Life’s not fair.

    And the, “Life’s not fair,” is said in such a tone of voice as to shut down all further conversation.

    Even, “Actually it is fair but I don’t have time to explain right now so ask me later,” would be better than admitting you’re doing something unfair and acting as if the general hostility of the universe was all the excuse you needed to be unfair.  For that matter, “I know, but I can only do so much,” would still be better provided the unfairness is a result of the adult’s lack of power to make things fair rather than favoritism.

    Sometimes you don’t have time to explain why X is the right course of action in a given situation, but telling a child that being unfair is completely ok because life in general is unfair is not a good way to respond to that situation.  It teaches all the wrong lessons.

    What children should be taught is that life not being fair is a reason for every human being, child and adult, to do their best to make it fair wherever they can and be fair in their own word and deed because they know that life will not sort it out for them.

    If all my friends jumped off a bridge I’d look at what happened to them, ask how the water is, and then likely jump myself.  There’s a part not too far from where I live where there’s a former rail bridge that’s been converted into walkway/ place to jump off a bridge.

    I have checked and it is, in fact, possible to say, “Holy Zarquon’s Singing Fish,” between when you leave the bridge and when you hit the water.

    Fred talked in the past about how the important first step is, “Stop hitting your sister,” referencing his two daughters once.  Other details can be worked out later, if at all.  But even if you’re never going to have the opportunity to find out who started it, it still seems like you should care.

    On, “Everyone else was doing it,” I think it matters a great deal if it’s true.  First off, if it is (for a given value of “everyone” that probably does not equal 100%) then the teacher let things get way out of hand before interceding.  Second, it means that the problem isn’t individual students, the problem is the entire climate of the classroom.  Pushing things off onto a scapegoat isn’t going to change that climate, it’s just going to teach “everyone else” that the odds are very much in their favor that if they do it again they won’t be punished.  (Only one person will be, if the group size is three or more the odds are against them being punished.  If the group size is 10 to 30 then they’ve got really good odds that they won’t be punished.)

    People do need to learn that, “Everyone else was doing it,” doesn’t make it right, but the person to do that teaching isn’t the one who has power over, “everyone else” unless it comes after making sure that the whole group is treated the same way.

    When discussing Baseball vs. Evangelistic culture someone pointed out that the rules aren’t always the rules.  If a rule isn’t enforced then it’s not really a rule anymore.  If you suddenly pick one person to enforce it on, you may be able to make an argument that, “Hey, it’s in the rule book,” but you’re not really respecting the rules, you’re being an asshole.

    The rules need to apply to everyone, unless there are clearly defined exemptions that can be reasonably explained (e.g. everyone has to stand except for those who can’t), otherwise they don’t have a chance at being just, and that’s before we even get to what the rule is, which itself is going to play a pretty damn big role in whether or not the rule is just.

  • Fade Manley

    In my experience, “collective punishment” turns into the class viciously shredding whoever was unlucky enough to get caught, and teaching kids that if one person is misbehaving, they might as well give up on good behavior because it’s not going to help anyway.

    I don’t think “make the other kids bully the troublemaker” and “teach kids that good behavior is pointless because it can be easily sabotaged by anyone at any point” are actually useful lessons for children. “Unjust and arbitrary” are not how I want a child’s education to be described.

  • It’s a dodge because the teacher cannot be omniscient and know everything that goes on in her class. Besides, it’s good for children to learn from an early age that adults are clueless and lazy; it will build character. 

    Does anyone else hear the comic strip in the voice of David Mitchell? 

  • Ian

    Wait, sometimes “I don’t care who started it” is the morally right response.  Take World War I.  We could blame Serbia for harboring terrorists, or Austria for abandoning diplomacy, or Russia, or Germany but it really doesn’t matter.  The injustices that led up to the war were inconsequential compared to the astonishing amount of suffering caused by the ongoing war.

    Peace activists like Bertrand Russell were imprisoned for undermining the righteous British crusade against the people who started the war.  Russell would have been right to say that British people had a duty to find a way to bring the senseless fighting to a halt, and that it didn’t matter whether Britain started the war.

  • Carstonio

    Sometimes I think Solomon had it easy.

    My experience with squabbling siblings is that there is some degree at fault on both sides. One of my strongest challenges as a parent is my fear of anger and conflict. I’m incredibly tempted to separate them in every instance, instead of teaching them how to resolve the conflict. My kids are incredibly jealous of each other and they struggle with learning to share – their level of distrust in each other sometimes astounds me.

  • Carstonio

    And it was obvious from the Treaty of Versailles negotiations that Britain and France were out to settle old scores. (To be fair, a united and armed Germany had scared most of the continent, and Germany itself feared a war on two fronts.) The unanswerable what-if question is whether less vindictiveness would have prevented World War II.

  • Foreigner

    Counsel for Reichsmarschall Goering said it wasn’t fair, because the USSR had a judge on the bench, and they’d been just as bad.
    Counsel for the USSR observed that Goering’s lot had started it, so ner.
    Counsel for the UK opined that yeah, the Jerries had started it, so shut up, fatty.
    Judge Biddle, USA, presiding, gave as his learned opinion that jurisprudence in Europe was obviously less well-advanced than he had assumed, and if they didn’t all shut up  *right now* there would be no milk and cookies for *anybody*, was that clear?

    Defendant Hess said “Who am I? Where am I?” and the hearing was adjourned pending Defendant’ Hess’ visit to Matron for some happy pills.

  • Jim Roberts

    For those criticizing Fred for not understanding, I think it’s worth pointing out this paragraph:
    “Teachers love to pull that one on the one kid they’ve singled out as “an example.” So the whole class is talking or disrupting or whatever and they focus on one child to bear the brunt of the punishment. The kid protests that everyone else was doing the same thing and the teacher says that doesn’t matter.”

    This almost exactly what Becca Stareyes was talking about – punishing the obvious, rather than seeking to punish the culprit, and then justifying it with, “I don’t care who started it.”

  • z00m3r

    Fred, yer missing the big picture; read some of the other critical comments here. 

    It’s not about selective enforcement or lack of moral distinctions, in general — but it _can_ be if the parent/teacher/guardian doesn’t go beyond the most immediate action to defuse, and explain at some point the important issues behind the conflict, in whatever way is accessible to that age group. Modelling positive behaviour and setting and enforcing clear guidelines consistently as possible _in general_ is important too.

    Is every conflict between children strictly about an aggressor and a defender — a guilty “bad guy/girl” and an innocent “good” one? Not by a long shot, and I think you know that. :)

  • It’s rare that you get one student walk up to another and punch him for no reason
    Not in my experience.  Happened all the damn time and I’m not long out of school.  (Of course if you asked them they’d give a reason, probably a different reason for every time period.  In high school it was because they thought I was gay.  No idea where they got that idea; I actually find the male body intensely unattractive, apparently well beyond that feeling in most straight males.)

    Last semester, in fracking university, I had someone throwing stuff at me, bodily cutting me out of conversations (starting talking to the person I was talking to by putting herself between me and that person for example) dropping her stuff on my foot and then yelling at me for touching her stuff without permission, and so forth.  No reason given*, no coherent pattern to when she did what she did beyond the fact it was always outside of the view of the patterns.  Certainly no discernible pattern related to my actions.  Sometimes I was talking, sometimes I was silent, sometimes I was walking, sometimes I was standing, sometimes I was just sitting at a desk.

    Perhaps more on point, there’s a difference between, “This needs to stop right now,” and, “I don’t care who started this.”

    “This needs to stop right now,” means it needs to stop regardless of who started it.  “I don’t care who started this,” means that you don’t give a damn whether it followed a pattern of escalation or one kid started pummeling another out of the blue or any of the variations in between.

    There’s a world of difference between the two.  “This needs to stop and stop now,” is a first step.  “I don’t care who started this,” precludes additional steps which in many cases may be necessary steps.

    If you don’t know the causes you can’t prevent similar things from happening in the future.  You also can’t get to the basic points of, “Even though [other student] did X to you, it was still wrong of you to respond with Y,” which are important points if it is an example of escalation as you describe.  And that only comes from finding out from the students involved what they think started it.  Not necessarily what actually did, but what they think did.

    If you can’t say, “Yes, [other party] was in the wrong, but when you responded with [action] you were in the wrong, which means you don’t get away with saying, ‘[Other party] started it,’ because what you did, starting with [action] was wrong.  You’re being punished [if student is being punished] because of what you did that was wrong.  If you respond to wrong with wrong you don’t get a get out of jail free card just because the other person was wrong first.”

    “I don’t care who started this,” precludes the important lesson that, “Even if someone else is wrong first, that doesn’t give you an excuse to be in the wrong.”  And that is a damn important lesson.  “Yes, [so and so] started this but what you did is still wrong and you’re still not allowed to do it,” is a lesson that needs to be learned by people who respond to wrong with wrong and that ignores the fact that sometimes it really is self defense vs unprovoked attack, which you will never even learn exists unless you care who started it.

    So, basically, “I don’t care who started this,” not only makes it clear that you don’t give a damn about whether or not one of the parties was acting in self defense, it also indicates that you don’t give a damn about teaching the lesson, “Just because someone else did something wrong first doesn’t mean you’re allowed to do something wrong in retaliation,” because that lesson rests on who started it.  To establish, “Wrong is wrong regardless,” you need to include, “Even if the other person started it,” which and the ideal time to really enforce that idea is when the person being taught it has just come out of a situation where they honestly and truly believe the other person started it.

    *Until this semester when she cut me out of a conversation that I was having by putting herself between me and the other person again but this time did so facing me, not the other person.  She assumed a threatening posture and gave her reason which when you cut away the weasel words and double standards (actually even leaving in the double standards) boiled down to: I don’t want you to speak.  Keep your mouth shut from now on and I’ll stop picking on you.

    But, as noted, she was doing things to me even when I was completely silent so even if you consider, “I don’t want you to speak,” a valid reason it still doesn’t explain many of her actions.

    A much better indicator of whether she was going to pick on me than whether or not I was speaking was whether or not someone in authority was likely to notice.  If she could do something without them noticing it would probably be done regardless of whether I was speaking or silent, if she couldn’t do anything without them noticing I was generally safe.

  • AnonaMiss

    It was always my understanding in school that “I don’t care who started it” was a way to reinforce that if someone is bullying you, the response is to get an adult, and not take matters into your own hands just because you felt righteous. If you didn’t go through the proper channels to take care of your problem, you were in the wrong too. Which is, in my opinion, a good lesson for the real world. If someone is breaking into my house, I need to call the police and focus my efforts on shielding myself from harm, not confront the burglar.

    Even after the fact, if there is a confrontation, in my opinion who started it is a very minor part of the moral equation. I judge by accumulated fault. If you ‘start it’ you have merely committed the first fault, not necessarily the most egregious. If I find out a coworker stole some money from me and I go and punch hir in the face, the fact that ze committed the first fault doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t get punished for punching hir. (Self-defense is a different matter – I don’t ascribe fault to acts of self-defense, because it’s an attempt to protect yourself, in the course of which the other person may incidentally be harmed.)

    NB. I have a strong distinction between ‘fault’ and ‘responsibility’, which I often need to pull out when victim blamers come around. Victim blamers tend to have a fetish for people needing to “take responsibility for their own actions/lives/whatever”, and it’s easier for me to get my point across by acknowledging for the sake of argument that sure, the victim bears some responsibility, but the victim didn’t do anything wrong, while the victimizer did, so clearly the victimizer is at fault.

  •  The one effective “solution” to this I ever encountered was the one the
    Army used when I was a trainee; “collective punishment”, the idea being
    that you succeeded or failed as a unit.   So if your sergeant caught
    everybody goofing off or horsing around EVERYBODY did pushups, because
    you had ALL failed; the originators because they started it, and the
    followers for going along and not reminding everyone else to knock it

    This probably works well in the army but at schools, not so much.  Back in my schooldays, I can’t count the number of times a whole class was kept back in detention because a few kids were misbehaving.  It always struck me as unjust; what was I supposed to do about the bad behaviour of other kids?  Tell them to stop?  Even assuming I wouldn’t get punished for yelling “OI, SIDDOWN AND SHUDDUP” across the classroom, they weren’t going to listen to me.

    Obviously the idea is that the disruptive kids friends exert peer pressure to improve their behaviour next time, but if you weren’t a friend of whoever was to blame, then it was purely arbitrary and undeserved punishment.

  • Fusina

     This doesn’t work quite as well in a school setting, esp. when the kids are fully aware of the usual offenders, and have no power to do anything about it for fear of injury. My kids resent the arbitrariness of this type action bitterly.

  • Fusina

     Yes. And along with the incredible jealousy comes an aching sweetness when they cooperate. Show love to one another. Give when they could take. I got my daughter a bag of gumballs which she shared evenly with her brother. No cues from me, no force used, she did it of her own free will. Yeah, I did get teary eyed over that.

    Regarding the “Life isn’t fair” crowd, yes, I do mention that. But I also ask, “What will you do to make it more fair?” and “Is there any way that it could be more fair?” Get the kids involved in the discipline and the revocation of privilege–I tried to teach my kids that with privilege comes responsibilities, and likewise, responsibilities come with privileges. Such that, they know if they are responsible, they attain more autonomy. I am not going to be here forever, and I want to leave kids who can handle independence. No one understands when I say it as “I won’t be their Mommy forever.” but the truth is, I don’t want to be their Mommy forever. I want to relate to my adult children as adults, autonomous and responsible for their actions and empathetic to those who are not as well off as they are/may be.

    I do hope that made some sort of sense.

  • vsm

    I suppose it depends on how you view the question of who was to blame for World War I. Austria-Hungary declared war first, sure, but it would have never escalated as it did if it wasn’t for the system of imperialist rivalry and alliances that was European foreign politics at the beginning of the 20th century. Figuring out who was responsible for that would have been most useful and legitimate.

  • Jim Roberts

    I was going to say something about how European politics and intrigue are sort of off-topic from talking abotu classroom discipline, but then I remembered the series of detentes, coups, treaties and skirmishes that constituted my junior high experience. So, carry on.

  • Foreigner

    Kaiser Bill, most likely, for deciding that despite Imperial Germany being the wealthiest nation in Europe, with the highest standard of living, and the best-equipped and trained army, what the Reich really needed was a hugely expensive North Sea battle fleet which so no purpose whatsoever except to piss the British off, a country who up til now had been his friend and might have been his ally. Subsidiary charge of not renewing the Re-insurance Treaty with Russia can be thrown at him as well.

  •  Ditto this. I always loathed collective punishment, because it is intrinsically unfair, and because one asshole basically holds everyone else hostage for his bad behavior, no matter how well they behave. Why should I even try if I’m going to get punished because John Doe over there is an asshole?

    Hell, I got fired once because I told a supervisor to his face that it was unfair, and I don’t care how they did it when he was in the army, this isn’t the army. I already went through that crap in boot camp, and having some civilian on a power-trip think it’s a great idea to emulate boot camp nastiness is just not on.

  • Launcifer

    I’m kind of wondering where some people are getting the idea that “I don’t care who started it” or some iteration thereof is either a sensible or reasonable response, but I do know that I wouldn’t want them within one hundred yards of a classroom filled with my hypothetical children.

    While I appreciate the line about anecdote and data, I can tell people what happened in my case when teachers pulled that crap: the other kids figured out – though not in so many words – that their teachers had designated an acceptable target and responded in the manner that most people would probably expect. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but classroom disruption became less about actual disruption and more about getting it to the point where Launcie – being a bit slow on the uptake and rather obviousin his involvement – would get involved and invariably cop the blame for it.

    Once this had been going on for a while and I’d developed a “disruptive” reputation, I wasn’t aware I had too many options when it came to dealing with this issue. Teachers weren’t too interested in listening to me since they had largely bought into the notion that I was a problem child. Meek and mild didn’t cut it because the some of the other kids would simply move into outright bullying in an attempt to force the desired outcome and I didn’t really enjoy being disruptive: I actually wanted to learn for the most part. Turned out I was much sharper than anyone – including me – had realised, though, so by the time I was in double figures I had become very good at asking the kind of questions and setting up the sort of situations that can trash a teacher’s authority in front of the entire class depending on how they deal with it. I’m sure the teachers among us know the sort I mean. And I won more than I lost.

    I only ended up there because I realised that any teacher who pulled the “I don’t care” excuse  out their arses” and still picked me out of the crowd more often than not was telling me the truth: they obviously didn’t care about the actual business of teaching-as-education and they certainly didn’t care about correctly  (or justly, if you’d prefer) enforcing the rules. All they gave a shit about was enforcing whatever they perceived to be peace so they could get right on with meeting their targets or whatever. All that really did, in the end, was damage my education and make my time at school far more difficult (I mean, seriously, it took the headmistress of one of my schools knowing I was off school and ill while teachers were blaming me for shit before anyone figured out that this was going on at all), as well as quite possibly making certain teachers’ professionals far more difficult than they needed to be. I accept now that most of the people who pulled this on me were simply trying to do a job, albeit very badly. I wasn’t entirely capable of rationalising this back then, being in the middle of it all and, since I perceived myself to be the target of a lot of unfair treatment, I really could have cared less about Mr whomever’s working life. 

    I don’t really mean for it to come off as a long-winded rant, so my apologies if that’s the case. I’m simply trying to point out the fact that, if you’re pulling this crap as a teacher in a classroom then, if you’re not careful, you will be setting up some poor kid to take shit from all sides as the other kids spot what’s happening, stories go around the break room and the labels stick. That kid might one day work out how to give as good as they’re getting in some form or another – and that does absolutely no one any good, least of all them.

  • Collective punishment doesn’t work in schools, which leaves the problem of those who figure out how not to get caught getting away with things.

    If everyone is speaking out of turn the teacher can look to see who’s speaking and maybe catch most of the culprits, but not the one’s savvy enough to keep an eye on the teacher, shut up when the teacher is facing them, and never speak loudly enough for their voice to be recognized.

    If someone is punching their victim in the back* in the halls when no teacher is looking it’s only going to come to teacher’s attentions if:a) The teachers are notified, but then they can’t do much beyond posting a guard, which they can’t do with every student.
    b) The person finally has enough and fights back.

    a) is an unsustainable response.  Not every student can have a bodyguard and if their victim did they’d probably just pick a new victim.  If the bodyguard was moved to new student then original victim could be returned to.

    b) is a situation where everyone is in the wrong, thus all those there present get punished.  (Or at least should be.)  Bullying is treated the same as breaking down have nonstop bullying.

    Thus the problem.  Teacher’s shouldn’t react to every claim of bullying as if it is proof of bullying because then bullies could just accuse their victims of bullying and get to them that way.  Teachers can only really respond to what they see/hear, and what they see is often only when the victim breaks down and fights back.  At that point everyone gets punished because the fighting back is usually disproportionate and it’s likely to be impossible to tell whether the person was responding to an attack and just going overboard with the self defense, or whether the person was beating someone up for no good reason.

    As time goes on I’m more and more of a mind that schools should have security cameras in the halls and possibly the classrooms as well.  It feels Orwellian but teachers can’t be everywhere at once.  What could however happen is for someone to review the tapes to see what’s happening when the teachers aren’t there.  It would only work for physical things (push, shove, punch, steal) not verbal ones and in the classroom might work for seeing who is talking so you don’t just catch the ones who are less sneaky than the savvy trouble makers.

    And it would lend to the oppressive atmosphere a lot of American schools  have anyway.  And it would just mean that bullying was pushed to entirely verbal and/or outside of school things, rather than stopping it.

    But, in spite of all that, at least it would make it so schools could be a place where students were physically safe.  And that seems a bare minimum.

    * This is something that did happen when a student went to his locker, more or less every time he went to his locker so multiple times a day.  After the first punch he still couldn’t be sure he was in the clear because, sometimes, double punch.  Finally he reached the breaking point and turned around and started throwing his own punches at whoever did it that time.

    Most or all of the bullies got away with what they had done.  I don’t think the original victim actually did much to hurt the person he was punching at because they weren’t particularly good punches.

    Victim turned attacker was suspended, which actually ended up being a relief for him because it meant days he could go through without being repeatedly punched.

    Was victim turned attacker in the wrong?  Absolutely.  Did he deserve to be punished?  Yes.  Does it matter who started it?  Yes.  Those last two yeses do not conflict.  Just because victim turned attacker was in the wrong and deserved to be punished doesn’t mean that the people who made him the “victim” part of “victim turned attacker” shouldn’t be considered in what happens moving forward.  They deserve to be punished too, but the trouble is no one who cared knew who they were.  Or at least no one could prove it.

    The victim was back-to for the punchings and, until he decided to spin around and fight back, had no way of knowing who was involved.  (Multiple people apparently.)

    And that’s all from memory so the facts might not quite be right, but I think the general idea is.


    I always loathed collective punishment, because it is intrinsically
    unfair, and because one asshole basically holds everyone else hostage
    for his bad behavior, no matter how well they behave. 

    Sure; when there’s a reliable authority figure who can be trusted to know who behaved well, who behaved poorly, and to mete out punishments and rewards in proportion to past behavior, then all I have to do is behave well and trust that I will be rewarded for it, and that’s a wonderfully relaxing place to be.

    Unfortunately, such reliable authority figures are few and far between.

    Which means it is sometimes useful to teach people how to deal with being part of a group of peers, any of whom can cause suffering for the entire group.

    For example, learning how to organize one’s peers to enforce group norms against “John Doe over there,” and how to participate actively in that sort of organization, is sometimes useful.

    For example, learning how to instead relax those group norms, and welcome John Doe into the group despite the collective costs of that, is sometimes useful.

    And learning how to distinguish among situations that call for the former and situations that call for the latter is always useful.

    Granted, collective punishment as typically implemented is a really poor way to teach those skills, just as throwing someone in the deep end of a pool is a poor way to teach swimming.

  • Otrame

    As Bill Cosby said, parents (and we can add teachers) aren’t interested in justice. They just want QUIET.

  • Carstonio

    In high school it was because they thought I was gay.

    You too, huh? I had assumed it was because I was more interested in books than in sports and I wasn’t stereotypically macho.  In elementary school the other kids thought I had mental retardation.

    During my middle-school years I went to a child guidance clinic twice a month, and the first day the counselor asked why I thought I was there, and I told him it was because my classmates were teasing me. I suppose I wanted him or the authorities at my school to bring in my classmates instead and tell them to knock it off.

    See, I had assumed that I should stay out of other people’s business and they should stay out of mine. I kept thinking that there was something about me or something about my behavior that was causing others to mistreat me, and that if I could figure this out, I could correct it and others would treat me the way I wanted to be treated.

  • Jim Roberts

    What I’ve found that works – at least for Sunday School – is giving the person I’ve spotted doing the wrong thing an appropriate punishment, and penalizing the others. I usually let the kids sit right next to each other. I know that they talk a bit when I do this, but that’s okay – let kids distract themselves occasionally and they keep their attention better over the long haul, generally.

    If I catch someone pestering their neighbour and I get the, “He/she* started it,” line, then I tell the kid, “Well, I only say you doing it, and you know not to do that yourself,” and that kid gets to sit in the Boring Chair.** The rest of kids now have to sit at arm’s length from each other. It seems to work although of course I arrange the classroom to minimize potential conflict anyway.

    * It’s usually a “she” in this class. One particular “she.”
    ** It’s in the middle of a large carpet and well away from everything and everyone else.

  • The problem with the collective punishment model is that it encourages extracurricular vengeance against whoever is seen as actually causing the problems, and thus is just going to make bullying the outsider situations worse. Also, it means that if everyone’s screwing around, there’s no point to being the kid trying to be good- you’re going to get punished anyway.

  •  Collective punishment works when you are participating in a unit voluntarily, i.e. the military, because peer disapproval works in that situation as you have the option of leaving, and it can encourage cohesion by bringing everyone together against the DI.  It does not work in situations where people are not there voluntarily, i.e. school, because peer disapproval only makes a bad situation worse when you can’t escape, and setting students up for an adversary relationship with teachers works against establishing an educational environment. 

  • What’s happened/happening to you is terrible, but it still has a reason behind it.   They may be terrible, pointless unknowable and inexplicable reasons, but they are reasons. 

  • I have a strong distinction between ‘fault’ and ‘responsibility’, which I often need to pull out when victim blamers come around.

    I’m never clear on just what the difference is.

  • GDwarf


    It was always my understanding in school that “I don’t care who started
    it” was a way to reinforce that if someone is bullying you, the response
    is to get an adult, and not take matters into your own hands
    just because you felt righteous. If you didn’t go through the proper
    channels to take care of your problem, you were in the wrong too. Which is, in my opinion, a good lesson for the real world. If someone is breaking into my house, I need to call the police and focus my efforts on shielding myself from harm, not confront the burglar.

    Sure, but what if you’ve gone to the teachers a dozen times and they never do anything?

    I’ve been on the wrong side of “Everyone else was doing it” and “I don’t care who started it” many times because they’re tools that are commonly used to silence victims. I’ve only very rarely seen them used in legitimate situations. I got bullied plenty in elementary school, and “I don’t care who started it” was used to make it clear to me that going to the teachers was a waste of time. It didn’t matter if I’d been minding my own business reading under a tree and gotten punched while not resisting, there mere fact that I’d been in proximity to the bully’s fists meant I got punished too.

    Are they sometimes-necessary phrases? Maybe. Though I think Chris the Cynic has the right idea on making it clear that who started it is important eventually, just not right now.

    Plus, of course, in the real world “Everyone else was doing it” is often a valid excuse, even in courts of law. If a law hasn’t been enforced for long enough then it no longer applies, and punishments for something that’s illegal-but-common are generally much lower than illegal-but-rare, with the exception of drug crimes. Even if it isn’t a valid excuse, it really should be: If other people can do something without punishment but you can’t, then that’s the law giving them an advantage over you on the basis of selective enforcement, which is all kinds of wrong.

    So yeah, I get the original purpose of these phrases, but the message they actually send and the ways they’re actually used make them much worse than doing nothing at all.

  • LA

    …yeah, this is why I got out of teaching. Trying to get 37 kids to behave AND learn about a subject maybe 1/3 of them care about doesn’t happen without some “it doesn’t matter who started it, you’re both escalating it and causing a disruption.” Please, adults/parents who haven’t tried to teach in a classroom, try your own hand at handling that many kids and see how long you go before those words come out. And then imagine dealing with 5 to 7 separate classrooms of 30+ kids, all with their own personality dynamics, 5 days a week for 10 months of the year…AND teaching them. It might be more feasible if we were just babysitting, but we’re also supposed to, you know, teach.

    I’m a human being and I’m not perfect, even though as a teacher, everyone expected me to be perfect 100% of the time. Any time I could see who started what, I addressed it, but there’s A)very little I can do as a teacher anyway and B) kids are extremely good at bullying out of sight. I know this because I was bullied as a kid and throughout high school–I know what to look for, and so do a lot of the teachers. But we can only do something if we’ve seen it ourselves/have proof.

    Peer disapproval has very limited success. Suspension, in or out of school is even worse, because usually the kids causing the problems are the ones who most need to be in class (but it’s the one I resorted to the most, if only because removing those problem students did improve the classroom experience immensely).

    The best way to fix the problem would be to get class sizes down again, because A) few kids means the teacher can more easily keep an eye on all students at all times, B) kids get more one-on-one interaction with the teacher, and C) with fewer personalities in the classroom, there are fewer clashes between students. It would not only cut down on bullying, it would improve learning outcomes. But getting class sizes down would require more classrooms and a lot more teachers, and that costs money, so it’s not going to happen, no matter how much administrators and politicians talk about reducing bullying and improving student learning outcomes.

    Parents and other people bitching about how teachers suck certainly isn’t going to help anything. It just makes people like me flee the second we can find a better job.

  • Hexep

    TW: Ultra-violent fantasies.

    Oh, lawd, I don’t want to remember this.
    I was picked on constantly as a lad. My skin was the wrong color, and I was a fatso, and I had a funny accent… and the worst part of it was that I was, well, big. Not just fat, though I was, but I was big. If I wanted to, I could snapped any of those little bastards in half. A flick of the wrist, and I could have cracked open their spinal cords and drank the juice from them. Or so I dreamed, at least; I never got in an actual fist-fight until I was an adult, and have no idea how I would have done back then. But I knew, I knew in my heart, that I was big, and they were small, and in a fair and just world, had it come to tooth and claw, I was ordained by the Gods to win. I was made that way.

    That was what tore it, for me. That was what ruined my heart. If I just sat and let myself be the victim, then there’d be nothing to it; I just had to wait for them to leave, and then I could go home and dream about how they would look in a cloud of mustard gas, their eyes turning to jelly and weeping out of their sockets. But I never hit back. That’s the absolute shame of my life, the supreme sadness, is that I never hit back. I’ve never hit back in my goddamn life. I wish I had hit them back, because I can only believe that I’d win. I wish I’d pushed them down and stomped someone’s head with both feet, and watched their brains splatter all over my shoes. They could extradite me to the mainland and rain me and have done with it, and then at least it would all be over, and I could get on with whatever came next and start my ten-million year career as a hungry ghost or something.

    But I was big. I was big, in a dozen ways – economically, culturally, racially, and especially physically – and they were small. And a confrontation between big and small was always an act of oppression, and I would have been the villain, and I would have been wrong and they would have been right and then who knows what would have happened next? I never found out, because I never tried it.

    I haven’t seen them since primary school, those old enemies of mine. But if I saw one of them drowning… I’d let ’em die. As long as they could look me in the eyes and recognize me first, and know that I could help them if I wanted but chose not to. If they wanted me to have a merciful heart, they shouldn’t have beaten all the mercy out of it. A poor choice of long-term investment, really.

  • GDwarf

    LA: But there’s a difference between someone using these phrases because they don’t see any other reasonable way to resolve things or need to get on with the lesson, or whatever, and having it used chronically and be touted as a good thing, which is more what Fred’s on about.

    It probably counts as a failing to use them, most of the time, but no one expects anyone to be perfect. What we want is for people to try.

  • flat

    Okay Hepex, I don’t know you but if |I were you I would be more careful what you wish towards your primary school enemies: because it might come true.

    Oh and don’t blame them for your own problems

  • LA

     No, seriously, I was expected to be goddamn perfect all the time. Maybe not by everyone, but by a majority of parents and administrators and even students. I am in no way exaggerating.

    And I totally get where people are coming from on the “this is not the right thing to say most of the time” because it’s not. And it’s not what I said most of the time–but as some have pointed out, a lot of the time, it’s not a one-way thing, and that’s what that phrase should be reserved for.

    The whole “Teachers don’t care” coming from Fred really stuck a bad chord with me. It was very triggering–but I know it’s not Fred’s job to manage other people’s triggers, because that would be an impossible task.

    But we *do* care who started it; hell, we care MORE because we want it to stop. It’s just that figuring it out is often just as impossible.

  • Ugh these kinds of entries where everybody’s correct about an aspect of the problem.

    As a rather mild-mannered individual with an obvious disability (hearing impairment) I came in for my share of people being jackasses to me for the sake of being jackasses to me. It was unfunny, and I occasionally had some rather violent wishes regarding the people who did such things, but I never acted on them because they were so obviously fantasies.

    But what WOULD have helped is a perceptive adult nipping that in the bud. The name I was being called was complete nonsense in and of itself. But it was annoying, and teenagers being teenagers, the people doing it picked up on that and kept it up and it got to the point where at one stage, a guy managed to get an ENTIRE P. E. LOCKER ROOM calling me that name in unison.

    Thank God for summer vacations, because that was the only thing that broke the day-in-day-out chain of this ridiculous name-calling.

    But had someone in authority picked up on it and nipped it in the bud, it would have made my life a lot easier.

  • Hexep

    If it comes true, it’ll do so regardless of my wishes. If you’ve given Rhonda Byrne any money, you did so unwisely. Unless it was for cleaning out your rain gutters or something.

  • Fusina

     I am so sorry about your experiences.

  • Quixote

     Hexep – I could have written what you’ve just written (both the ultra-violent fantasies and the Rhonda Byrne quip).  I feel exactly the same way.

    But still, it’s best not to feed those thoughts because they’re poisonous.  I won’t say forgive them, because forgiveness is a state you recognize, not something you turn on or off.  Hell, I haven’t forgiven my bullies (and I haven’t been bullied since the 80’s) yet and I probably never will.  But wishing them ill only hurts me.

    Therapy gave me some tools to fight these feelings.  Your comment snapped me out of the violent fantasies *I* was having due to being triggered by this thread and allowed me to wield them.  For that I thank you.