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. 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.
Over the past few years, a good number of school officials have told me that the problem of parental overreaction 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.
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.