It would be nice if anytime bullying happened in a school, a large, blinking sign identified it as such. Now, you may think that that’s not necessary; that “you know it when you see it” and so it’s easy to recognize bullying when it happens. Once, that may have been true. When bullying was predominantly physical, it wasn’t too hard to identify a transgression.
But today, most bullying is psychological in nature. That makes things much tougher, because psychological cruelty isn’t always bullying – not by a long shot.
Consider this example. Imagine that a bully has decided to launch a campaign against a target. She immediately rules out hitting her – she knows she’ll get in serious trouble, and besides, she really doesn’t want to hit. But she still wants the target to know that she has nothing but contempt and disdain for her. So she sets out, perhaps with the help of friends, to make this target miserable. If the target tries to speak with her, she ignores her, or whispers with her friends and laughs at her. In class, if the target raises her hand, the bully rolls her eyes with her friends. They don’t let her sit at their table at lunch, and they tell other students not to be friends with her.
This type of scenario is one that I would consider fairly typical. But think about how it translates into real-world behavior. A teacher may see the bully and her friends whispering and laughing at the target, but that teacher has no way of knowing if she’s seeing bullying or not. This might be a one-time act of meanness, or perhaps the “mean girls” are really not aiming for that particular target, after all (even if it looks that way). You may have read that bullying is a behavior that happens repeatedly (not a one-time act of cruelty or anger); that it is intentional, and that the target has less power than the bully and is thus unable to defend herself. But those characteristics aren’t obvious in a school hallway. How do you know which child has more power? How do you know if an act is intentional, or if it’s happening for the first time? Academic definitions are important to understand but they don’t always help when you’re actually in the trenches.
The answer, surprisingly, is that it’s not always best to ponder whether an act is literally “bullying” or not. Whispering about people in front of them is mean – and that’s true whether it’s the first time you’ve done it or the hundredth and first time. So don’t overfocus on whether an act is bullying. Instead, help children learn appropriate social behaviors. If they whisper about someone in front of them, remind them that that is a rude behavior. This isn’t about punishment; it’s about caring enough to show them how to behave towards others. That type of learning will help them all of their lives.