Recently, a friend of mine was alarmed to find out that her 9-year-old daughter was being sent home from school and would be required to attend mandatory guidance counseling sessions for bullying. It's still not entirely clear what went down, but the bottom line is that the fourth-grader said or did something unkind to one of her classmates. It was a one-time incident and not something the girl had ever done before, to this classmate or any other. But the school labeled the incident as "bullying," and as a result had to follow specific zero-tolerance policy in doling out her punishment.
I know this girl, and she's no bully. She's actually a really sweet kid. But that's the thing — she's a kid. She has a 9-year-old's sense of justice and judgment, and so she often reacts or overreacts and yes, she occasionally makes poor choices in how she treats others. Her behavior may be seen as rude or even unkind. But is it bullying?
Author and child therapist Signe Whitson attempted to answer this question and more precisely define what really is bullying in her blog post: "Rude vs. Mean vs. Bullying: Defining the Differences." Whitson makes it clear that while sometimes kids say things that aren't very nice, that doesn't make them bullies. And by defining all behavior as bullying, we might be diluting the term and making it harder for the kids who are having issues with bullying to get help.
As Whitson explains, rudeness is when kids do something unkind but without really intending to be mean. They cut to the front of the line or brag about their test scores in front of someone who didn't do as well. These kids aren't bullies; they're just being rude. And while their behavior warrants correction, it doesn't necessarily require counseling.
Then there's meanness. That's when kids say or do something nasty and they fully intend for it to come across as mean. Telling a classmate that her hair looks gross or laughing at him for a bad grade or saying, "I hate you!" to a kid that used to be considered a friend — these are all isolated incidents of mean behavior. Kids who say or do mean things may need some help finding better ways to express their anger or frustration. They may even benefit from a few sessions with the school's guidance counselor. But they aren't bullies either. Because, as Whitson points out, meanness differs from bullying in several key ways.
So what it bullying? Here's how Whitson defines it:
"Bullying = Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power."
Bullying is not an isolated incident. The episodes happen over and over again. Bullying can be physical or verbal or even occur solely in cyberspace. But the key aspects are that it is repeated and that it involves a power imbalance. It's pushing a kid against his locker every day or spreading rumors about a girl or constantly making negative comments on a kid's Instagram account.
It's not saying or doing something unkind one time.
Rudeness and meanness and bullying — three very different things that necessitate three different responses from parents and school administrators.
When we label all these actions as bullying, we run the risk of trivializing the real pain and trauma felt by victims of bullying. And that makes it harder for the kids that are being bullied to make their voices heard.