In a recent Washington Post article on parenting, author Braden Bell presented his perspective on why it is important for children (as well as parents and caring adults) to be able to differentiate between mean or unkind behavior and bullying. As a teacher, Bell deals with both on a regular basis. He began to notice more and more parents labeling their child’s negative interactions with peers as “bullying.” The term is used as a catchall for every undesirable exchange.
Bullying is very real and can have detrimental effects. Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as “aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” It is clear that when bullying happens, it’s crucial to address it immediately and effectively. It almost always requires adult intervention from parents, school officials, or even law enforcement. When a negative event occurs everyone is in a heightened state of emotion. Treating it as a “bullying” incident can feel like the proper course of action. However, people can be insensitive, thoughtless, immature, mean and even aggressive without it being bullying. It is important to differentiate between the two. Bell explains, “For the rest of their lives, our children’s happiness at home and success at work will be determined by how well they can navigate relationships and resolve difficult issues. If we write every unpleasant encounter off as bullying, we don’t prepare them well.”
In an article In Psychology Today, Eileen Kennedy-Moore, author and psychologist wrote “when we fail to distinguish between bullying and ordinary meanness, we trivialize the very serious cases of peer abuse.” Calling every act of meanness bullying sends an unhealthy message: it says to kids, “you’re fragile” and this message can lead to learned helplessness, less resilience, and over sensitivity to perceived offenses. So how do we respond to a child when they encounter unkindness that isn’t bullying? Or when they are confused and feeling hurt from a mean peer? Bell suggests asking one simple, yet powerful question: “what are your choices?” By asking this question and brainstorming with the child, we offer a process of working through a challenge and evaluating a complex situation. By presenting this process in a thoughtful way, we are modeling empowerment and resilience. This is an ongoing dialogue, not a one time discussion; check back in to let mentee know you are listening and care.
If you think what you are hearing your mentee describe is bullying, don’t hesitate to report the incident to the school’s Counselor, School Contact, or Seedling Mentor Director. StopBullying.gov is an excellent resource for information on the subject.
- Bell, Braden. “Not all unkindness is bullying. Here’s why we need to teach kids to differentiate.” Washington Post, On Parenting, August 16, 2018.
- Kennedy-Moore, Eileen. Ph.D. “Is It Bullying…Or Ordinary Meanness?” Psychology Today, October 1, 2014.
- Manza, Gail & Patrick, Susan K. The Mentor’s Field Guide. Search Institute Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2012