The b-word epidemic. (No, the other b-word.)



By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

Jack, an impulsive and charismatic 5-year old in my son’s preschool class, did not want to play with Charlie today.  As Charlie told it to me on the car ride home from school, Jack was being a “bully” by saying he wanted to play army guys instead of color dinosaurs with my son.

Really, Charlie?  Really? 

As a four-year old, sadly, Charlie has already been programmed to categorize and label people who hurt his feelings. He has learned, by some well-meaning adults along the way, to figuratively put people who hurt him in a box in the corner of the room labeled, “bad-mean-people-that-don’t-care-about-me-on-account-of-major-character-defect-and-are-absolutely-nothing-like-me”.  The side of the metaphorical box has seven letters on it:  B.U.L.L.I.E.S.

And this is not just a four-year old habit.  For even middle and high-schoolers, anything that is remotely undesirable, is now fair-game for being labeled “bullying” behavior:

Sam openly laughed when you fell asleep in class and were startled awake by your own snort?  Sam is a bully.  George didn’t pick you for the team because your bat makes contact with your own head more often than the actual ball?  George is a bully.  Kate said, “Eeeeew!  Gross!” when you opened your liver and swiss sandwich next to her?  Absolutely, 100%, Kate is a bully.

Last I checked, the dictionary defines “bullying” as “to treat abusively” or “to affect by means of force or coercion.”  Yes, cases of abuse and force exist, but even in cases of actually “bullying,” I wonder how much we are actually helping our kids by our horrified reactions of labeling another person as “bad/evil/not like you.”

In almost seven years of working with kids in private practice, I can count, on one hand, the times that using the term “bully” was both appropriate and helpful. In very few cases have kids been so abused that that they were, in fact, bullied, and so brainwashed by the abuse that they took comfort in being told that “there are people out there that are just bad people.” In most cases, however, I fear the cons outweigh the pros of calling any offending kid a “bully.”

Putting others in a category of “not like me” instead of seeking to accept and move forward (or even, if I’m an extra-ambitious parent, to understand and move forward), is a crutch, and not one that I want to teach my kids. Labeling others provides a sense of false resiliency, through the misguided process of reversed superiority and the complacency of self-professed victimhood.   And, by handing them such a crutch, are we setting our kids up to be resilient and empowered or self-righteous and ineffective?

I wonder if our “slap-a-label-on-it-generation” is depriving our kids of the resiliency that came with the roll-your-eyes-and-move-on, sometimes-kids-can-be-mean, and sticks-and-stones-may-break-your-bones adages of the generations of yesteryear….The resiliency that only comes with confidence, wisdom, and action.

Can’t we simply tell our kids, “Yes, we feel-for your hurt feelings but the important thing is that you keep your feet firmly planted in the reality of your worth, no matter what anyone says or does.”?  Charlie, I know you are hurt that Jack called you a poopy head, but ARE you, in fact, a poopy head, in actuality?

Can’t we tell our kids, “Other people have perspectives that, even if they inadvertently hurt, are to be honored.”?  Charlie, I know it makes you sad, but it is perfectly acceptable for Jack to like army guys instead of coloring.

Can’t we simply tell our kids, “Yes, it sounds like he was trying to be mean to you on purpose, and no, that’s not okay.”? Charlie, that kid that kicked you wanted to feel more powerful than you, and you did not deserve that. 

Can’t we tell our kids that there are reasons that people behave the way they do even if their behaviors are not acceptable?  Charlie, remember when you yelled at mommy because you were sick of sitting in the car for so long?  And I told you that’s not okay? Well, sometimes people are cranky and they take it out on other people, and that’s not okay.

Can’t we teach our kids that there is something better they can do with their hurt, like just keep moving forward despite what anyone says?  Something better than resting on the indignation of being “wronged by a bully.”?  Charlie, he might try to throw sand at you, but you can ignore him and go have fun on the swings.

And, of course, there are also versions of these responses that apply to teenagers and older kids:  Yes, Jack is entitled to find your in-class-snoring funny, but no, it’s not okay if Jack calls you stupid, and It sure is good to know you aren’t, in fact, stupid; And maybe you want to strike up a conversation with the kids in band instead…

None of these reactions rely on the crutch of crying “bully,” and as such, instilling these messages require tougher, more reality-based, and in-depth conversations.  But, if we want our kid to have all the ingredients of actual resiliency:  confidence, action, and wisdom, these are certainly the worthwhile discussions to entertain.




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