Tips for Parents

Parenting: Is it bullying or overreaction?

John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Find his ‘Traditional Parenting” website at rosemond.comFebruary 17, 2013 

ROSEMOND JOHN

KRT MUG SLUGGED: ROSEMOND KRT PHOTOGRAPH BY DON WILLIAMSON/CHARLOTTE OBSERVER (March 22) John Rosemond writes for the Charlotte Observer. (mvw) 2005

DON WILLIAMSON — Knight Ridder Tribune

The principal of a middle school recently confided in me that “this bullying thing has gotten completely out of hand.”

He wasn’t referring to bullying itself, although that’s 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 wouldn’t 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 son’s 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.”

That’s the very sort of nebulous definition that fuels a mother’s outrage at snack mix being poured down her son’s 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 doesn’t 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 that’s all you’ve got to complain about, then you live a very good life.” Unfortunately, a principal or teacher can’t say anything along those lines these days without getting into hot water. A child’s parents can say it, though and sometimes — just sometimes, mind you — they should.

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