Bullying is a growing phenomenon that our schools and society must deal with.
The media have focused on bullying recently, in part due to the rise in school violence, cyberbullying and varying responses such as the passage of new laws in New Jersey.
It is possible that the seemingly larger number of cases could in part be due to an expansion of the definition of bullying. No more is it considered the repeated abuse of one who is less powerful by one that has more power. It now seems to include areas once considered “normal” childhood behaviors. Social exclusion, name calling, teasing, unfriendly behavior and sarcasm are definitely mean and meanspirited but are they in fact bullying?
In an effort to protect our children from toxic behavior, it seems that we are quick to brand someone a bully, handing out a label that can be hard to overcome.
Sometimes an instance seen as bullying may in fact be behavior that is somewhat developmentally appropriate. It may indicate a lack of impulse control, underdeveloped empathy and poor judgment. However with education and appropriately scaffolded social/emotional development, children can learn how their actions and words have consequences and affect how other children feel. Prevention programs can be a way of helping children to learn that their behaviors have important consequences.
My hope is that we mental health professionals, parents and teachers can facilitate growth and help children to develop more appropriate ways of interacting with one another, rather than simply using the label “bully” without further explanation. This label is hard to overcome and thus many with this label assume the characteristics and continue to engage in these negative behaviors to their and their victims’ detriment. Children should be allowed to make mistakes and learn and grow from them. That is the purpose of education.
The label of “victim” may also not be helpful. Those who are mistreated should also be seen as having the ability to grow and learn how not to be a victim. Children are permitted to make mistakes in math and history—why not in interpersonal relationships? A growth concept should exist rather than a punitive, zero tolerance mindset.
A code of conduct as proposed by Susan Porter in her Independent School Magazine article, “Why Our Approach to Bullying is Bad for Kids” is a good model. It emphasizes the positive approach and includes principles for students based on supporting the development of children’s well-being and health. This approach includes challenging the community to understand the social and emotional development of children and adolescents. The school should recognize the physical, psychological and emotional growth and change that comes about through education and development.
Another related issue is the area of socially acceptable bullying. In our society, especially in the sports world, the institution of “hazing” has been tacitly accepted. At the college level, initiation activities in fraternities and sororities are joked about, looked at as a badge of courage, and projected in the media as popular and a natural part of collegiate society. This can make it difficult for children to discern when, where and how certain behaviors are or aren’t malevolent.
As adult role models, I believe it is our responsibility to critically examine both society’s definition of, and our acceptance of, the phenomenon of bullying. Only after that moral assessment will we be able to conjure up a more complex, comprehensive and valid plan to help identify, prevent and eliminate bullying.
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