The principal of a middle school recently confided in me that this bullying thing has gotten completely out of hand.
He wasnt referring to bullying itself, although thats certainly out of hand. Instead, he referred to the fact that many parents have become overly sensitized to the possibility that their kids might, at any moment, become bullied and overreact, therefore, to any indication that they have been.
You wouldnt believe what parents think is bullying, he said, and went on to describe some examples. One involved a mother who complained that a boy had poured a small amount of dry snack mix down the back of her sons shirt. The mother was incensed and wanted the perpetrator subjected to water-boarding, or something along those lines. Said principal then went on to describe other instances of bullying that were not bullying at all, but simply pranks.
It might be helpful if everyone were able to agree on a rational definition of exactly what separates actual bullying from just normal childhood mischief. That lack of consensus may be, in fact, a major share of the problem. For example, the definition at StopBullying.gov proposes that bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a power imbalance.
Thats the very sort of nebulous definition that fuels a mothers outrage at snack mix being poured down her sons shirt. I prefer something along the lines of the definition found on Wikipedia: repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another person physically or mentally.
That captures it nicely, I think. Note that the aggressive behavior in question is not incidental, but repeated. And it is done with the malicious intent to do harm, both physically and mentally, to another person. I would only add that an additional purpose is to keep the victim in a state of near-constant fear. And by the way, I was the target of at least three bullies during my school years. I wish all theyd done was pour snack mix down my shirt on a daily basis.
Over the past few years, a good number of school officials have told me that the problem of parental over-reaction has become bigger than the problem of actual bullying. Occasional teasing doesnt fit the definition proposed by Wikipedia and myself. Nor do one-time pranks like snack mix down the shirt, tripping, name-calling, or any other form of mischief that might cause embarrassment but is not done with the deliberate intention of keeping another child in a near-constant state of fear.
I was reminded of my conversation with the principal by an email recently received from the mother of a 21-month-old boy who, she claimed, had been bullied by a girl at his nursery school. The girl had pushed her son and grabbed a toy he had been playing with. Mom wanted me to recommend a book on bullies she could read her little one. First, thats not bullying. Thats what toddlers occasionally do when theyre put in groups. Second, the mothers overreaction, repeated over time, is likely to cause her son to become overly sensitive to any perceived slight, whether physical or verbal. Under the circumstances, he could quickly develop a victim mentality and do himself more mental harm than a bully would ever be capable of doing.
Sometimes just sometimes, mind you adults would do well to say something along these lines to a complaining child: If thats all youve got to complain about, then you live a very good life. Unfortunately, a principal or teacher cant say anything along those lines these days without getting into hot water. A childs parents can say it, though, and sometimes just sometimes, mind you they should.