When Bullying Isn’t Bullying
Bullying is a hot topic these days. Schools have anti-bullying classes. You see anti-bullying commercials on the television. There are books about bullying. Everywhere you go, a story can be told about how one’s kid was bullied and the deleterious effects of said bullying on the child. An entire industry has sprung up to address and combat bullying and yet, reports of bullying seem to become more pervasive every year. The US government even has a website entitled Stop Bullying.
Stop Bullying defines bullying as "unwanted aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance." The site then goes on to describe 3 types of bullying.
First, there is verbal bullying that is defined as saying or writing mean things. This includes teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting and threatening to cause harm.
Outside of cyber bullying, which has taken “saying and writing mean things” to a whole new level, I don’t consider the act of simply saying or writing something mean to rise to the level of bullying. Threatening to cause harm to others has always been considered bullying. Inappropriate sexual comments from one kid to another, a huge problem and a product of the early inappropriate sexual exposure to, and sexualization of, young children, definitely rises to the level of bullying.
However, when I was growing up, teasing, name calling and taunting were called just that – teasing, name-calling and taunting. If you were the object of the teasing, name-calling and taunting, it was hurtful and made you sad, but you learned to deal with it. Why? Because beyond childhood, a person will have to deal with a multitude of bullies – on the job, at college, in social settings and otherwise. And as an adult, you have to know how to deal with mean people. Not everyone is going to want to be your friend and not everyone will be nice to you.
The government’s definition of Social Bullying is behavior that “involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships” and includes leaving someone out on purpose, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about someone and embarrassing someone in public.
I understand that there are nasty, mean kids who use technology and social media to escalate their bullying beyond anything that was imaginable when I was a kid. And I think kids who use social media to harass and humiliate someone else should be dealt with severely.
All that notwithstanding, there is a certain amount of playground justice that I believe must be allowed. For example, I have watched a child constantly antagonize a few or all the kids in a group. When the group decides to then exclude that child, after repeatedly telling the kid to quit to no avail, I do not consider that as bullying. Sure, you have a kid who is being intentionally excluded, but it is a result of that kid’s own behavior. That is healthy for all kids involved and I do not consider this bullying.
Rather, I think it empowers the group of kids to take up for themselves and not accept behavior that they deem unacceptable. Being excluded because of one’s behavior teaches the antagonizer that his behavior is not going to be tolerated. If an adult then intervenes and makes the group include the antagonizer (as I have seen on more than one occasion), he learns that his behavior is ok, enables more unacceptable behavior, teaches him that he doesn’t have to be accountable for his own actions and worse, teaches the group that they are powerless to deal with what they consider unacceptable or offensive behavior.
Another problem that I have with this Social Bullying approach is that sometimes, kids simply don’t have anything in common. Why should they be forced to be friends with someone they have nothing in common with or who they don’t even like? Adults aren’t forced to do this. But, again, I have seen many occasions where the bully and bullied were forced to "become friends." I think this is outrageous and tantamount to making a abuse victim become friends with his abuser. No court of law would force an abuse victim to hang out with and become friends with her abuser so why do people make child bully victims do it?
Beyond having to be civil or cordial to, and work with, your coworkers, church members, club members, etc., you don’t have to be friends with all of them. You don’t have to socialize with them. So why should kids be held to a different standard? Honestly, how many times have you, as an adult, been forced to repeatedly socialize with people you don’t like or have anything in common? You avoid these situations a much a possible. Kids are no different.
To be sure, I encourage my kids to invite new kids to play in their play groups and to make an effort to be welcoming so that the new kid feels like they are wanted. But after a few meetings, kids should be allowed to make friendships and socialize in a natural way. After all, isn’t the point of childhood play and socialization to teach kids how to have healthy adult relationships? Do you want your child to grow up thinking they have to be friends with someone they don’t like? Regardless of how those people treat them? Don’t you want your kids to learn to trust their instincts when it comes to choosing friends and who they want to be around?
If my daughter tells me that another kid gives her the creeps or that there is “something about” another kids that makes her uneasy, I always encourage her to trust her instincts and she is never forced to play with those kids.
The third type of bullying on Stop Bullying is Physical Bullying, which entails hurting a person’s body or possessions. Hitting/kicking/pinching, spitting, tripping/pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things and making mean or rude hand gestures are all listed as manifestations of physical bullying. I accept that these are, for the most part, traditional examples of bullying unless……unless…they happen in self- defense. You see, I have no problem with my kids standing up for themselves.
I’ve seen kids repeatedly touch, hit, rub, caress, hug, kiss and otherwise engage in unwanted physical contact with other kids despite being repeatedly asked to stop. Parents of these touchy kids often don’t see a problem with this because their kid “doesn’t mean anything by it” or because that’s “just how Johnny likes to play.” But then, when the kid who was being tormented by Mr. Touchy Feely has had enough and lashes out, the parents of Mr. Touchy Feely want to yell “Bully!” Well, no. Mr. Touchy is the bully and the kid who just pushed him down is dealing with your kid, the bully, in a way that life will deal with him if he doesn’t learn stop means stop and no means no.
Finally, let’s look at the government’s use of the words “aggressive” and “perceived” in their definition of the word “bullying.” According to the definition, bullying is aggressive behavior. The dictionary defines aggressive as “characterized by or tending toward unprovoked offensive, attacks, invasions or the like.” Kids, parents and educators need to focus on the word “aggressive.”
Not all behavior described above is aggressive; that is, not all the behavior is going to be committed in an aggressive manner or with aggressive intent. Kids are kids and they will make mistakes and do the sorts of things that kids do. But not every instance of misbehavior toward another child should be characterized as “bullying.” Address the issue for what it is but don’t elevate all behavior to “bullying” if it’s not.
That said, repeated non-aggressive behavior becomes "aggressive" when one has been repeatedly asked to stop and the child won't stop.
I have a problem with the government’s definition where it describes a perceived power imbalance. My question is: whose perception? And how do you hold a school aged kid accountable for someone else’s perception? If Kid A thinks Kid B is “intentionally excluding” Kid A but Kid B hasn’t even noticed that Kid A wants to play because Kid A hasn’t said or otherwise indicated he wants to play, why should Kid B be held accountable for reading Kid A’s mind? Kid A needs to take on some accountability and make an effort to let Kid B know he wants to join the fun. It’s not the other kid’s job to make your kid feel good. (See Being an Introvert is No Excuse for a Lack of Social Skills.)
Moreover, what exactly is a perceived "power imbalance?" How is Kid B supposed to know if Kid A "perceives" that a power imbalance exists? Including the word perceived in the definition of bullying simply opens the definition up to an extremely subjective and arbitrary application.
Using Caution with the word "Bullying"
The term “bullying” has morphed in such a way that some kids think that if everyone isn’t doing what they want, that they are being bullied. The slightest infraction is bullying. Anything that makes them uncomfortable must be some form of bullying.
Kids need to understand that not every situation is a bullying event just because someone is being ugly or rude or mean to them. Or because someone doesn’t want to play with them. Or because someone is ignoring them. Or because someone doesn’t like them or appreciate how “affectionate” they are.
It’s up to us adults to teach kids the difference between dealing with true bullying and learning to cope with life.