There’s a new “B” word in town, and it ends with “-ully.”
I know that the anti-bullying campaign started with the best of intentions. Bullying is real. In fact, I was bullied pretty severely for a time in high school. A group of older girls I didn’t really know decided they didn’t like me for some reason, and went out of their way to slam me into lockers, shove me down, and berate me in the bathroom. It was terrifying and I was miserable for quite a while. Eventually, one of them was expelled, and the rest of the group disbanded. A year or so later, I had the opportunity to get to know one of the “bullies” and learned that her home life was rather difficult. Although it was hard at the time, it ended up being a great life lesson for me about seeing the struggles in other peoples’ lives and not being too quick to judge.
Since that time, I’ve become a stepmother and mother. I don’t want my kids to think it’s okay to bully others, nor do I want them to bullied. With that said, however, I must say this:
We have overdone it talking about “bullies.”
The word has developed a harsh, demonizing quality, and yet it’s tossed around freely nearly every time a child takes a toy from another child. Sadly, I suspect that it has gone so far that we may even be depriving our kids of opportunities to learn to handle conflict themselves. They’ve been conditioned to report almost any mean behavior as “bullying,” which results in one kid being labeled as the “victim” (good) and one as the bully (“bad”). If a child causes an issue or deals with adversity in a less-than-ideal way too many times, he or she may quickly earn a reputation of a “bully,” which may be impossible to shake and even internalized by the child. Such a stigma can affect a child to his or her core, and that is a heavy burden to place upon a child who may already be fighting unknown battles at home. I might even dare say that we have taken it so far as a society that the kids who are labeled as “bullies” are now the victims in the situation.
I say all of this as a parent of children who have fallen on both sides of the scenario: the bully and the victim. I’ve received calls from the school to inform me about “a bullying incident,” and in both circumstances, I didn’t feel the term was being appropriately used. In further considering and discussing the situation, my child who had been cast in the “victim” role was treated meanly by another student for a couple of days, but it wasn’t a pervasive problem. On another occasion, my child who was characterized as “bullying” someone else had just made an insensitive joke. Are either of these scenarios okay? Of course not. But they aren’t worthy of the term “bullying”.
I’ve been pondering this for quite a while, but when I read this article entitled “Rude vs. Mean vs. Bullying: Defining the Differences” a few weeks ago, it brought my feelings to the surface. It gives the following definitions:
Rude = Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else.
Mean = Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice).
Bullying = Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power.
I shared the article on social media with the following disclaimer: “This statement probably won’t win me any mom friends, but I’m really sick of the ‘bully’ talk. I think children are too quickly labeled as ‘bullying’ others when they’re really just being rude or insensitive CHILDREN. They might need to be disciplined, but the ‘bully’ word has too many negative connotations to be thrown around so easily.” When I posted it, I expected backlash. I expected defensiveness. After all, I’m friends with a LOT of moms and teachers — I’ve been present with them for anti-bully presentations at school and pulled the anti-bullying worksheets from their classes out of my child’s backpack.
To my great surprise, however, I found that many of my parent and teacher friends agree. Many teacher friends commented that they’re saddened to see students in their classrooms labeled as “bullies” from as young as preschool-age, often by other parents who don’t know the full situation and have only heard one side. Many expressed their frustration that kids are just being kids and have not learned all the coping skills of an adult that would allow them to handle situations appropriately. My favorite comment was this:
“I agree with you totally. Kids will be kids, and as parents we need to be teaching our children how to handle a variety of social situations and stop looking to rescue them by punishing/condemning the person with whom they are having the conflict. I prefer to teach compassion and understanding.”
If so many of us feel this way, why does the “bully” talk persist?
This is my plea for all of us to re-examine what we are teaching our kids. We can certainly still caution our children about pervasive, abusive mistreatment that might rise to the level of true “bullying.” Rather than tossing harmful labels about casually, though, let’s focus our efforts on teaching children the differences between good and bad choices, kindness and meanness, and compassion and cruelty.