When I received a call that my 5-year-old son was being a bully at camp, I felt as if I had failed as a mother. Outrage quickly followed the humiliation, as I imagined a scenario in which my child would intentionally bother another child. By the time I arrived at camp at the end of the day to collect him, I had worked through an entire spectrum of emotions, but I vowed I would listen to his explanation and try to contain myself. There is always another side to the story after all, and at the risk of sounding defensive, I know my child. And he is not a bully.
From the conversation I had with my son, I gleaned that there was an altercation during a soccer game and both boys had been aggressive. When the other child tried to take the ball my son lashed out and was sidelined. He was remorseful and assured me he would try harder to get along with this particular boy in the future. Together we reflected on alternative ways that he could have reacted to the situation and how he might control his anger going forward. I then informed him of what the repercussions would be if I ever heard another discouraging report like this again.
Now that I have had several days to ruminate on the situation, I realize that the main source of my angst is the word bully itself, and I think it is time we reevaluate the usefulness of this term. Below are five reasons I think we should stop using this word so haphazardly.
1. The B word is scary.
When I hear the word bully I envision school shootings, drug abuse, and a life behind bars. A bully is someone who picks on those whom are weaker than they are. A bully is someone who uses insults and physical force to threaten others. A bully lacks compassion and has malicious intent. It is a powerful word that elicits anxiety and fear. What mother would arrange a play date with a child who has been labeled a bully? And once a child is categorized as such, how difficult is it to remove the stigma?
2. Name-calling is wrong.
Name-calling is name-calling. Period. Calling a child a bully is attacking the individual and not the behavior. We tell our children not to call others names, but permit adults who care for our children to do so. Does no one else see the irony here?
3. The B word is overused and abused.
A colleague shared that her son had also been called a bully at daycare. After she pressed the school for details and the caregivers were forced to investigate further, it was determined that the other child who claimed to have been bullied was simply intimidated by her child’s stature. Her child was not being aggressive or misbehaving. His only offense was that he was big for his age. Ignorant and unwilling to look deeper, this daycare was prepared to write him off as a bully.
4. Sometimes kids are just being kids.
Learning how to get along with others is a part of life. Kids push boundaries. Kids call each other names. Kids hurt each other’s feelings. Not every situation equates to bullying. With proper guidance, these children learn right from wrong.
5. The B word does not help.
Telling a child that they are being a bully hurts. I saw my own child crumble when I told him about the call I received and I will not use that word against him again. Similarly, turning a child into a victim by telling them they are being bullied creates an environment where retaliation is permissible. How many times have we heard a child justify his bad behavior because he felt he was bullied?
Yes, there are clearly times when the word is appropriate. I am not belittling a serious issue in our society, one that is taking some rather scary turns when it comes to the internet and cyber-bullying especially. I am glad that schools are adopting a no tolerance attitude and lawmakers are punishing those who victimize others.
I am merely suggesting that educators and caretakers use the word responsibly.