Living with Children: Parents often overreact to bullying
The principal of a middle school recently confided 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 and wanted the perpetrator subjected to water-boarding, or something along those lines. 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 bullying from normal childhood mischief. That lack of consensus may be 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 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. And, by the way, I was the target of at least three bullies during my school years. I wish all they'd done was pour snack mix down my shirt on a daily basis.
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 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.
I was reminded of my conversation with the principal by an email recently received from the mother of a 21-month-old boy who, she claimed, had been bullied by a girl at his nursery school. The girl had pushed her son and grabbed a toy he had been playing with. Mom wanted me to recommend a book on bullies she could read her little one. First, that's not bullying. That's what toddlers occasionally do when they're put in groups.
Second, the mother's overreaction, repeated over time, is likely to cause her son to become overly sensitive to any perceived slight, whether physical or verbal. Under the circumstances, he could quickly develop a victim mentality and do himself more mental harm than a bully would ever be capable of doing.
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.
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Penguins president: General manager, coach won’t be fired
- Rossi: Crosby, Malkin didn’t sign on for this
- NFL notebook: Sanchez says Eagles signed Tebow as extra arm in camp
- Serious injury reported in Penn Hills fire
- Penguins’ Malkin: ‘We’re not a championship team’
- 3 names added to Tuskegee Airmen Memorial in Sewickley
- Parkway West closure canceled
- Defense dominates West Virginia’s spring game
- Views of Heinz Field entice National Guard recruits
- Hempfield man dies in single-vehicle accident
- 2 Hempfield Area students charged with sexting