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Is It Bullying...Or Ordinary Meanness?

What does and doesn't count as bullying, and why it matters.

If you say the word “bullying” in a classroom full of elementary school kids, here’s what happens: Hands shoot up. Everyone has a story about how someone bullied him or her.

Bullying is a serious problem that can have devastating effects. As a clinician, I’ve seen more than a few adult clients brought to tears by memories of horrifying peer abuse. I’ve seen kids who feel frightened or wounded by their peers’ cruel words or actions, and parents who feel angry or helpless in the face of their child’s victimization by other kids.

I’m glad that there’s much more awareness now that bullying is not just “normal” kid behavior or a rite of passage, and that entire communities need to work actively to prevent bullying.

But sometimes the “B word” is thrown around too casually.

Definition of Bullying

Researchers have a very specific definition of bullying: Bullying involves deliberate, aggressive acts targeting a particular individual repeatedly, over time, (although some researchers also count a single severe aggressive act), and it involves a power difference between the bully and the target.

In other words, the bully is bigger, stronger, tougher, or more socially powerful than the person being bullied, which makes it difficult or impossible for targets of bullying to defend or protect themselves.

A lot of what children call bullying is really just ordinary meanness, because there’s no power difference.

I want to be very clear about something: I’m not advocating or defending or excusing bullying or any form of meanness. But I do think that calling every unkind act “bullying” is not helpful.

When we fail to distinguish between bullying and ordinary meanness, we trivialize the very serious cases of peer abuse. Also, calling every act of meanness bullying sends an unhealthy message: It says to kids, “You’re fragile. You can’t handle it if anyone is even slightly unkind to you.”

A child's distress is not the only measure of bullying. For instance, Hearing peers yell, "You're out! Yes, you are!" in a game of kickball might be very upsetting for a child who doesn't believe she's out, but it's probably not bullying. It's something she needs to learn how to handle. We could comfort her, we could teach her coping strategies, but labeling the other kids "bullies" won't help her learn to deal with frustration or manage conflicts.

Meanness is Common Among Kids

Anyone who has spent substantial time with children knows that they are often mean to each other. Debra Pepler at York University and her colleagues, video recorded the playground behavior of children in 1st through 6th grade whose teachers had identified them as either especially aggressive or especially nonaggressive.

On average, the aggressive children did some form of mean behavior about every two minutes. But those carefully selected nonaggressive children averaged a mean behavior every three minutes!

Even kids who consider themselves best friends sometimes behave in unkind ways. Preschool and young elementary school friends average just under three conflicts an hour.

An observational study of third- through sixth-graders by Steven Asher and his colleagues found a cringe-worthy list of 32 different ways that kids reject each other. This included everything from hitting and kicking, to lengthy arguments along the lines of "Nuh-uh!"/"Uh-huh!"

Some forms of rejection were blatant, such as refusing to let someone sit at a lunch table or announcing "You can't be in our club!" Others were more ambiguous. Teasing could be friendly or mean-spirited. Refusing an offer of food could reflect disinterest in that food or concern about "cooties."

Impulsivity, immature problem-solving skills, difficulty managing feelings, limited perspective-taking ability, following the crowd, or just experimenting with social power are all factors that could lead kids to do mean things.

Any of these behaviors could be upsetting for a child, and they're certainly not desirable ways to act, but they only "count" as bullying if there's a power difference between the kids.

True bullying is a serious problem that requires intervention from adults. Ordinary meanness is common. It's something that kids need to be able to handle (with encouragement and support from caring adults, if necessary) and to learn to avoid doing themselves.

We adults haven’t managed world peace or even perfect marriages, so it’s unrealistic to think that our children will always be perfectly kind to each other. And yet, kindness is a worthy goal.

As parents, we can help our children cope with the meanness that they will inevitably encounter. And, even more important, we can try to guide them toward more caring responses to their peers.

Fighting Bullying by Helping Kids Look at Their Own Actions

Kids are quick to condemn bullies, but they have trouble seeing the impact of their own behavior. Psychologist Brent Harger found that 5th graders often believed in a false dichotomy between bullies and nonbullies.

They assumed that bullies were always mean and since they themselves weren’t always mean, they couldn’t possibly be bullies. They dismissed anti-bullying messages in their schools as “not relevant for them.” They looked at the signs and slogans condemning bullying and thought, “Those bad kids should stop that!” They also believed that joking, retaliating, or making fun of younger students doesn’t “count” as bullying.

The key to bullying prevention is not protecting the “good” children from the “bad” bullies; it’s helping all children learn to behave in kinder ways. Addressing ordinary meanness paves the way toward more caring communities.

Below is a questionnaire I developed with my colleague Mark Lowenthal. Have your child consider the questions and emphasize that he or she does not have to tell you the answers. The point of this exercise is to increase awareness, and to encourage kind choices in the future, not to force children to admit guilt.

Some Honest Self-Reflection About How We Treat Others…

For each question, decide whether the answer is “Sometimes,” “Never,” or “Often.” Be honest. You will not have to share your answers.

  1. Have you continued “joking” when you could see that someone was getting upset?
  2. Have you laughed or joined in when you saw someone being picked on?
  3. Have you said things about boyfriends/girlfriends that made someone feel uncomfortable?
  4. Have you laughed at someone who made a mistake or was struggling?
  5. Have you told people that you “hate” another kid?
  6. Have you deliberately called someone a silly name, even after being asked to stop?
  7. Have you made fun of how someone looks, dresses, acts, or talks?
  8. Have you said mean things about others behind their backs?
  9. Have you written or passed notes with mean comments about others?
  10. Have you said, “Oh, no!” or complained when you’ve had to work with a certain student?
  11. Have you told another kid, “Nobody likes you”?
  12. Have you done unkind imitations of how another kid acts or talks?

[Note to kids: If you answered “Never” to every question, you’re probably not being honest. Everyone makes mistakes and does unkind things sometimes. What’s important is to recognize when this happens, try to make it right if you can, and promise yourself you’ll do the kind thing next time.]

"Honest self-reflection questionnaire" reprinted with permission from Kennedy-Moore, E., & Lowenthal, M. S. (2011). Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. (Jossey-Bass/Wiley). PLEASE USE ONLY WITH ATTRIBUTION.

© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD. Google+ Twitter: psychauthormom

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For further reading:

Asher, S. R., Rose, A. J., & Gabriel, S. W. (2001). Peer rejection in everyday life. In M. R. Leary (Ed.), Interpersonal Rejection (pp. 105-142). New York: Oxford University Press.

Harger, B. (2009). Interpretations of bullying: How students, teachers, and principals perceive negative peer interactions in elementary school. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana University.

Pepler, D. J., Craig, W. M., & Roberts, W. L. (1998). Observations of aggressive and nonaggressive children on the school playground. Merrill-Palmer-Quarterly, 44, 55-76.

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