Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What is Bullying Anyway?

School districts across the country are struggling with how to stop bullying in the wake of the teens who have committed suicide after being bullied.  My daughter’s school district has undertaken that task and this year sent home information specific to bullying.  They are taking it seriously, as they should, and I applaud the school for adopting a zero tolerance of bullying. 

But the new policy sent home with my third grader made me question:  What is bullying anyway?

For me the classic image of the school bully is the kid that pushes other kids around whether by physical intimidation or verbal threats or insults.  The bully isn’t always the largest kid in the class, but the bully is someone who gets their way through threats, intimidation and fear.

That’s what I thought bullying was.

Here’s what my daughter’s school sent home about bullying:

“Students who name call, exclude others, tease, and/or become physical towards another student will be written up and [the Principal] will review the situation.”  (emphasis added)

It’s that word “exclude” that caught my attention.  At first blush you may say of course, excluding is wrong and can lead to hurt feelings so we should ban it.  But here’s my question:  Are hurt feelings or feelings of being left out the same as bullying?

Please understand that I’m not insensitive to hurt feelings.  I was a geeky nerd kid with red hair – I experienced a lot of hurt feelings in my childhood.  But was it bullying for a particular girl clique that I wanted to be a part of to say “we don’t want to play with you?”

Kids, especially very young children, have virtually no choices in life.  Their parents and their school decide just about everything for them.  Even for teenagers there is a lack of freedom.  Should kids be free to choose who they play with on the playground and who they eat lunch with and who they hang out with?

Or am I being na├»ve?  With the advent of social media, I know that things have changed for kids and now bullies, especially girl bullies, have the entire Internet and social media web to use for their bullying.  Have things changed so much that we must quash freedom of choice in who we spend our time with in order to protect kids from hurt that can lead to emotional problems and suicide?

Here’s how the Oxford American Dictionary, 2010, defines “bully:”

n. A person who frightens or persecutes weaker people
          v. Frighten or persecute a weaker person

Synonyms are:  persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, tormentor, intimidator, thug

This definition fits with how I’ve always defined a bully.  When you imagine a bully, do these words fit your image?

I’ve been a divorce lawyer and mediator for sixteen years and unfortunately my work has brought me into contact with domestic violence issues.  Domestic abusers are bullies.  Whether the abuser is a man or woman (yes, women sometimes are the abusers though not as often as men), they use their fists or their words (usually both) to intimidate and oppress.  Put downs and insults are the abuser’s daily bread and butter, used to weaken the other person’s self-esteem and resolve.  The physical violence seals the deal so to speak and shows the other person “see, I’m stronger than you and I can get and do what I want.”

It is my belief that bullies are made in their homes where they likely observe bullying behavior by one or both parents.  The bully then hones their craft on the playground, in the lunchroom, and in the corridors of the school.  By the time the bully reaches high school, he or she has likely been bullying since pre-school and knows how to work the system to their favor.  In fact, I can foresee the bully using the “no exclusion” policy to bully someone into playing with them so they can bully them some more!

Bullying is very serious.  My concern is that if we water down and broaden the definition too much it will become meaningless.  Getting your feelings hurt because you didn’t get invited to a party sucks and dealing with mean girls can leave a scar.  But when someone engages in a campaign of constant insults, put downs, threats, and/or verbal or physical intimidation is different.  The latter is bullying. Is the former bullying?

It’s no fun to be excluded by the bitchy, mean, exclusive girls.  But are mean girls automatically bullies?  Is it their exclusion that’s the problem?  Or how they go about it?

Lets get some conversation going about this important topic.  What do you think?

Is excluding bullying?  Has bullying changed?  Do we need to broaden the definition to encompass new forms of bullying?

Have you been bullied in your life?  How do you define bullying?

If you’re still in school, do you agree with the new policies on bullying?  Do you think bullying is a problem and if so, how do we fix it?

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