If you hang around with elementary school kids, you’ll probably hear them throw around the word “bully” a lot these days.
“He’s a bully! He took my pencil.”
“She doesn’t want to include everyone in her club. That’s bullying.”
Over the past few years, mental health researchers and writers have been raising attention to the longstanding problem of bullying. Once thought to be a normal part of the childhood experience, it has come to light that humiliation and abuse can be perpetrated on the playground or even between siblings. When kids are the recipients of such abuse (even at the hands of other children), a great deal of harm can be done. Bullied kids might get anxious or depressed, maybe even suicidal. Bullying is serious and parents need to be on the lookout for it. Kids need to be taught to stand up for themselves and their friends.
But somewhere in the discussion of what constitutes bullying and what we can do as adults for the kids affected, we may need to also define more clearly what bullying is not.
• Bullying is not a child deciding he doesn’t want to play football on the playground today, thus hurting his friend’s feelings.
• Bullying is not refusing to share.
• Bullying is not name-calling, at least not when it happens now and then in heated moments of intense feelings.
• Bullying is not the impulsive child who doesn’t understand physical space and continues invading, trying to be funny or friendly.
• Bullying is not leaving someone off the birthday party invitation list because parents limited it to just five closest friends.
• Bullying is not tattletale-ing.
In order to help our kids understand how to handle the big situations, we have to educate them (and ourselves) to see the differences between everyday conflicts and bigger problems. We need to encourage them to brush off the little things, and seek support for the big ones. Some things they can handle without a team of friends behind then, and without the school counselor.
True bullying is usually hidden from the watchful eyes of adults, and it can be hard to help kids understand what they are looking for, or when to stand up versus just walk away. Bullying is the systematic attempt to take power away from someone else. A bully targets a specific, perhaps vulnerable child and tries to make him or her feel small. When a group of peers get involved and tell a bully to “knock it off,” the behavior often gets better.
In the third grade, my own child started talking one morning over breakfast. She said there was a child at school who was making her feel very upset. I said, “uh-huh,” but didn’t think much of it. I assumed it was one of the little conflicts kids encounter every day. And then I looked up and she was crying.
She said, “Teachers say ‘Work it out,’ but I don’t know how to work this out. I have been trying to work it out, but I can’t. It’s too hard. I don’t understand it. Sometimes kids are bad and they break rules, but this is different. Other kids don’t act this way. I just don’t know what to do.”
Anti-bullying campaigns don’t describe the difference between this conversation and the otherwise too often misused exclamation, “She bullied me!” But here was the difference: she had tried to brush it off, talk it through, walk away, and otherwise move on. But the conflict didn’t budge. She was overwhelmed, confused, and stressed out. That’s how a bullying situation feels to a child. Or, even if not bullying per se, this is the moment when it’s time to ask for help. When it’s something they can’t work out, and they need help from peers and adults.