Bullying Isn’t the Real Problem, How We Talk About Childhood Aggression Is

Consider this. Despite our current obsession with bullying, children are no more aggressive than they used to be. The truth is there is no research to suggest that kids have undergone a massive transformation over the past generation—they’re the same as ever. And yet, in the past decade, almost every state and school district in the nation has enacted laws and policies against children in the form of anti-bullying legislation. In fact, bullying is considered a felony in some jurisdictions.

But if children are the same, then what’s changed? What explains the anti-bullying frenzy that grips the nation and compels us to enact laws that make children felons?

One thing that’s changed radically in the past decade is how we talk about childhood aggression, and specifically the way we rely on labels to describe the dynamics between children. When we label children bullies, victims, or bystanders they become players in a tightly scripted and fixed drama. Bullies are guilty, victims are innocent, and bystanders should know the difference. There’s no room for interpretation or nuance once children are labeled, and this hurts everyone.

For instance, children are keenly aware of the power of labels, and once labeled they will live up to our expectations of them. Call them stupid, and they will underperform. Call them ugly, and they will see ugliness in themselves. Call them bully—or victim–and eventually they will comply. Ironically, name-calling between children is currently considered a form of bullying, yet we have no trouble calling children names when it serves us.

This do as I say, not as I do approach with children does not get us the outcome we seek (which presumably is for them to be kind to one another). Instead, using labels only fuels our self-righteous anger toward them and increases our fear for their welfare. Beg to differ? Then ask yourself when you last felt compassion for a child labeled bully, or helped a child labeled victim consider his role in a painful social dynamic. Labels give us permission to behave toward children in the very ways we are asking them to avoid; with labels we objectify them, put them in a box, and leave them no room to see possibilities for change.

If we really want to help children in their relationships with each other, we must start thinking about them differently, and we can begin this process by eliminating labels from our vocabulary. The truth is children will never learn the lessons we want them to learn until we stop calling them names.

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