Really, That’s Bullying??

It’s incredible what passes for bullying theses days.

I recently heard from two school principals about bullying incidents at their respective schools. Both principals were very concerned about their situations, but not because of the behavior itself. Rather, both were troubled that the definition of bullying has swelled to such a degree that almost any conflict between children now qualifies as bullying, and this has left people like them–school administrators–in a very difficult position.

The first incident occurred between middle school girls. The principal reported that she received a phone call from a mother who was very upset because her daughter was being mercilessly bullied by some classmates, and she wanted to know what the principal intended to do about it. After calming the mother down, the principal learned that the woman’s daughter was teased, just once, for wearing big earrings. Not for having big ears, for having big earrings.

The second case involved two groups of middle school students that accused each other of bullying. Armed with self-righteousness indignation and the claims to victimhood that are the hallmarks of the pre-adolescent child, the groups marched separately into the principal’s office and charged their classmates with bullying. After the principal patiently listened to each side of the story, it became clear what was going on. The students were engaged in a power struggle about what game to play at recess.

I hear stories like this all the time from school administrators, and they would be laughable if our current anti-bullying frenzy didn’t require us to take situations like this “seriously.” Once the charge of bullying has been made, regardless of how specious the claim may be, school personnel must proceed cautiously, and often in lockstep with policies that have left common sense by the wayside.

Instead of dealing with such incidents for what they are—that is typical, predictable, and normal expressions of childhood conflict–our current definition of bullying, which includes teasing and social exclusion, requires us to react as though a child’s self-esteem is on the line whenever he or she feels a little emotional pain or discomfort. This simply isn’t the case, but you wouldn’t know it given how we’re expected to respond when the charge of bullying is leveled.

Sadly, we are creating a lot more problems for our children in the long run by believing that they will be permanently damaged by the routine social problems that occur throughout childhood. I am not suggesting that all cases of conflict or aggression that are labeled bullying are this benign, but many of them are. What these cases reveal is that our definition of bullying has become unwieldy, and as these principals can attest, this isn’t serving our children.

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