A few summers ago, a ten-year-old camper wrote a letter home telling his parents he was being bullied at camp. His irate mother called to let us know. I was very concerned, so I went to talk with the camper right away. I expected to find a sullen boy sitting in the corner of his tent, but instead I found him in the middle of a friendly card game with three other boys. I waited for him to finish then asked if we could chat for a few minutes.
I told him his mom had called because she was concerned he was being bullied, and I asked him what was happening.
For a few moments he sat and thought, and then he told me about two different incidents that he was referring to when he wrote the letter to his parents. The first incident was when two boys in his cabin group didn’t want to play the card game he wanted to play. The second incident was when a boy touched his shoulder from the seat behind him in the van on the ride to our outpost camp.
I asked him if anything else had happened. Had anyone called him any names? Had he been left out from games or events? Had any of these three boys done anything else on another occasion? He said he couldn’t think of anything else. I asked him if he was making friends and having fun at camp, and he said he was.
And I started wondering, when did not getting your way or a one-time annoying behavior become “bullying?”
Here’s the official (per Wikipedia) definition of bullying:
Bullying is the use of force or coercion to abuse or intimidate others. The behavior can be habitual and involve an imbalance of social or physical power. It can include verbal harassment or threat, physical assault or coercion and may be directed repeatedly towards particular victims, perhaps on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality, or ability. If bullying is done by a group, it is called mobbing. The victim of bullying is sometimes referred to as a “target”.
I was bullied in seventh grade. I didn’t have a name for it then, but I know now that’s what it was. An eighth-grader who sat behind me in math class bothered me daily by saying rude sexual comments and snapping my bra strap. I dreaded the class, and it really made me miserable having to be around that kid. I didn’t report it, because this was the late 1970s and it was before the report-everything era. I complained to my friends and counted the days until I was done with that math class and that kid. I’m glad that youth professionals work harder now not to let bad behavior like that continue, but now I’m getting tired of kids and parents referring to every behavior they don’t like as bullying.
Back to my conversation with the “bullied” camper:
I asked him if he had ever said or done anything annoying to the other kids in his group. He admitted that yes, in fact, he had.
“Were you bullying them?” I asked.
“No!” he emphatically responded.
“So why are you being bullied but they’re not?” I asked.
He thought about that for a while and then decided that, in fact, he wasn’t being bullied after all.
But how did we get to the point that I was even having this conversation? When did a kid who doesn’t get his way become a victim of bullying? And why are parents so certain that if their child uses the “b” word he must be being mercilessly harassed? In this insightful article, Signe Whitson distinguishes between mean, rude, and bullying behaviors. I think it’s important that parents and youth development professionals know this distinction and teach children that not all negative behaviors towards them qualify as bullying.
I’d like to suggest three things.
First, please don’t call every incident that doesn’t go your child’s way bullying. Kids not having the same interests, not wanting to play the same game at recess, or even not wanting to be close friends with your child are not necessarily bullies. Teach your child the important friendship skill of finding friends with like interests who reciprocate their feelings, and also the hard lesson that not everyone we want as friends will want to be friends with us or want to play and do the same things we do.
Know that your child will most definitely be the recipient of one or more mean comments or actions at some point during his school years, but unless it’s ongoing, repeated intimidation or meanness directed at your child, it’s not bullying. It’s just a mean kid.
When my son came home this year with a story about something mean another child did to him at school, I listened and ask if the meanness was only directed towards him or also to other kids. He said the kid treats everyone badly. I encouraged him to steer clear of the kid as much as possible. I want my son to have the ability to handle occasional mean comments and be discerning about who to spend time with. This is an important life skill he needs because, unfortunately, life contains some mean people.
Second, please focus on the character traits you want your children to be developing, like kindness and compassion, and model for them what those character traits look like. And encourage your school, clubs, and sports teams to focus on a “Pro Kindness” message instead of an “Anti Bullying” one.
Third, if you are concerned that your child is a victim or perpetrator of repeated and harmful physical, verbal, or emotional treatment (real bullying), then act. First talk to your child about the course of action and empower him to be part of the solution. Respect his opinion and ask what he thinks should be done, and then involve coaches, teachers, other parents, and counselors as needed.
There have been many tragic stories in recent years of kids who were so badly cyber and in-person bullied that they ended up committing suicide. Schools and camps are required to train staff in appropriate responses to bullying behavior, and it is important that adults who work with kids know how to prevent and address bullying. But we also need to focus on what we DO want kids to be doing instead of bullying. We need to model and teach kindness, acceptance, empathy, and compassion, which are all the antitheses of bullying. After all, we don’t just want kids to stop bullying each other. We want them to be kind and compassionate to each other, to include kids who are isolated, and to reach out to children who need social support. Instead of assemblies and motivational posters with the “Stop Bullying” theme, I’d like to see assemblies with titles like, “10 Ways to Be a Great Friend” that cover ideas on specific things you can do to be a good friend. And what about having a bulletin board where kids can post “Acts of Kindness Seen This Week?” Let’s turn our message into a pro kindness one so that our kids learn how we do want them to treat each other. Let’s focus on the dos not the don’ts!
Next time your child says he’s been bullied, ask a few questions instead of assuming that he knows what that term really means. While it’s important for kids to know and report real bullying, they also need to understand that not all unpleasant behaviors are bullying.