My eight year-old daughter spoke at a school assembly yesterday, which made me really proud. The theme of the assembly was RESPECT. (Actually, my daughter shared what she’d learned about Mozart and the Magic Flute – the respect theme came later). At one point in the assembly, the grade ones read little compositions they had written, all prefaced with the phrase:
“If you want to lose all your friends…”
Their conclusions ranged from the funny (“put a frog in their lunchboxes”) to the troubling (“whack them with a big stick”) to the expected (“pull their hair”, “stick out your tongue at them”, “call them names”). But one of the kids voiced a sentiment that is part of a trend that’s been sort of bothering me in a low-grade way since my oldest entered Kindergarten. He said:
“If you want to lose all your friends, be a bully by not sharing with them.”
So here’s my issue. When did the term “bullying” come to encompass all non-desirable behaviours that even a normal, well-adjusted and otherwise kind and considerate child might engage in? My two kids have been prattling on in this vein for some time now. The term “bullying” — as apparently taught in school — means any or all of the following:
- not sharing
- asking to play with me too often
- not asking to play with me often enough
Of course they do also learn about all the — what I’ll call traditional — bullying behaviours: name-calling, teasing, physical assaults. But I gotta be honest with you here – I think this is one case where the pendulum has swung too far. I agree: we should never tolerate the kind of behaviour I consider to be bullying, but on the other hand, aren’t we being very unfair to our children by classifying all those other, typical childhood behaviours as bullying?
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we let them get away with tattling or not sharing or pestering each other or excluding each other. No. We should definitely encourage them to deal empathetically and considerately with each other. That’s our job as parents. But I don’t think we need to brand otherwise good kids as bullies because they are acting like kids.
In my pursuit of more information on this topic, I came across this definition of the term “bullying” on the website for the Faculty of Education at the University of South Australia. Here it is:
Bullying involves a desire
to hurt + hurtful action + a power imbalance + (typically) repetition + an
unjust use of power + evident enjoyment by the aggressor and a sense of being
oppressed on the part of the victim.
So first of all, there’s a desire to hurt. When Jimmy doesn’t want to share his new Lego, he’s not doing it because he wants to hurt his friends. He’s doing it because he doesn’t want to share his Lego. Not generous. Not friendly. Not desirable behaviour. But definitely not bullying.
I also think the issue of a power imbalance (and it doesn’t have to be a physical imbalance, like big kid picking on small kid – power comes in many forms) is very important. When my eight year-old daughter tells me that her five year-old sister is “bullying” her by trying to horn in on her playdate, I just don’t buy it, partly because there just isn’t a power imbalance or abuse of power. That’s not to say that I will necessarily make the older girls play with the little sister, either. Often the little one is pestering them terribly, which is not great behaviour, but it still doesn’t make it bullying.
There’s (usually) repetition, and enjoyment on the part of the aggressor along with a sense of oppression on the part of the victim. Again, Jimmy and his Lego or my youngest and her pestering don’t fit this bill – Jimmy doesn’t withhold his Lego because he enjoys hurting his friends. In fact, he’s most likely very conflicted, because he just loves his Lego so much and really wants it to be all his, but he doesn’t actually like upsetting his friends. And ditto with my little one – she really, really wants to be a big girl playing with the other big girls. But she is definitely not enjoying pestering them. She just desperately wants in on the play. In both cases, the emotion is quite literally selfish, as in “I want this for me” but definitely not malign as in “I want this because it hurts you and that makes me happy”. I will concede that there is likely a sense of oppression in the offended parties in these cases, though!
To me the most confusing of all is that, paradoxically, my daughters are being taught to report all undesirable behaviours to an adult, and yet they’re also taught that tattling is a form of bullying. What?
Now, I’ll be totally honest with you here: I have a bit of a pet peeve about tattling. My older daughter has a couple of friends who are what I call “police kids”. These girls feel somehow compelled to report every one of my daughter’s actions to me:
Katherine, Daughter took off her socks.
Katherine, Daughter got a juice box from the fridge.
Katherine, Daughter went upstairs.
Katherine, Daughter turned on her CD player.
Katherine, Daughter is dancing in her room.
And so on. Honestly! It’s enough to make me cringe to even hear them say my name. I’ve finally had to resort to telling them that I am in fact the Mom, and am therefore the only one who needs to worry about Daughter’s behaviour, unless she’s hurting someone or someone is in danger.
All that is merely to point out that I am not actually biased in favour of tattling, rather the opposite. However I do believe that “telling on” someone has a very important place in stopping actual bullying. Hence the guidelines I worked out with my two daughters:
- It’s important to tell a grownup when anyone is in danger.
- It’s important to tell a grownup when you see someone hurting someone else (physically or emotionally, ie hurting their feelings), or if someone is hurting you.
- It’s not necessary – and in my house, not encouraged – to tell a grownup if the only reason for doing so is to get the other person in trouble (as was the case when my five year-old ran up to tell me her sister was wearing her heelies to the mall).
So what do you think? Have we gone too far in our efforts to protect our children from bullying? Are we, as I sometimes suspect, at risk of falling into the same trap as the boy who cried wolf? When we call all non-admirable behaviours “bullying” do we then blur the boundary so much that our children aren’t able to identify actual bullying when it does occur? Or is this hyper-vigilance all just a small price to pay for safer, happier children?