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LIVING WITH CHILDREN

Parenting advice: Intent separates bullying from childhood mischief

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 10:08 am

The principal of a middle school recently confided in me 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. 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 actual bullying from just normal childhood mischief. 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. 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 actual bullying.

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.”