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November 11, 2015

Defining “Bullying”

By: Mara Kates, Assistant Director

“Bully” has been the buzz word amongst parents and people who work with young people for the past few years now. And it’s great that we are so aware of our kids’ social and emotional well-being. And it’s great that we’re teaching kids that it’s ok to reach out and ask for help when they feel unsafe. I shudder at the stories of the stuff that was going on at camp when Joanne first took over in the early 1990’s and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is grateful that we’ve changed the culture so significantly since then.

However, I’m worried that some parents (and kids) are so hyper-sensitized to the fear of bullying that they are not distinguishing between rudeness, teasing, girl drama, etc. (all of which are crappy and need to be addressed, but are also normal social phenomena that young people need to learn to navigate in order to be prepared for adulthood) and real bullying, which can literally be a life-or-death issue and requires a much more heavy-handed approach.

At camp we teach our staff to identify the difference between bullying and normal squabbles and how to deal with them differently. Squabbles and drama require collaborative problem solving (in other words mediation between involved parties to help them find their voices and express how the other’s actions made them feel). All identified cases of bullying come straight to the directors because we recognize how serious they are. If our regular interventions don’t work, we kick bullies out of camp because we won’t tolerate the negative effects they have on others. But if every time a child felt teased or hurt an adult stepped in and reprimanded the accused, that child would never learn how to advocate for themself. And the alleged “bully” wouldn’t know how their words/actions were affecting others, because it is SO much more powerful for a child to see and hear directly from another child who feels hurt by them than having an adult say “how do you think that made Johnny feel?”

This Huffington Post article does a great job of distinguishing between rude and mean behavior and bullying and why it is important to make the distinction between them. Parents should absolutely continue to educate their kids on the dangers of bullying and encourage them to seek adult support if they feel victimized or see anybody else being hurt. But they should also talk to them about mean and rude behavior (and how these differ from bullying) and coach them on how to navigate these unfortunate but inevitable challenges of growing up. Stay posted for my next post about how to do that.

I’m worried that some parents (and kids) are so hyper-sensitized to the fear of bullying that they are not distinguishing between rudeness, teasing, girl drama, etc... and real bullying, which can literally be a life-or-death issue and requires a much more heavy-handed approach.
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