In recent months, I have heard the words “bully” and “bullying” thrown about quite casually regarding what I consider typical behavior for children.
I think there is a very definite distinction between the normal – and positive – action of teasing and the harmful, deliberate act of bullying. As a parent, I try very hard to pay attention to these differences.
Bullying is meant to hurt. A person who bullies is consciously trying to make another person feel bad, isolated, left out, etc. It’s not about someone having a bad day and acting like a jerk, it’s about repetitive, calculated actions that are intended to harm another individual or group. Bullying is a very serious thing. It is also a pretty rare thing, believe it or not. Most children/people do not bully.
Fortunately for most of us, what we are dealing with in our children’s and their peers’ behavior is teasing.
Teasing is another thing altogether. Learning how to playfully rib our friends is a wonderful ability to have, and learning how to laugh at ourselves is even better. Teasing among children is very, very common, and it can help kids to bond with each other and to develop social skills.
Now how do we help our kids figure out how to tease without having it interpreted as bullying? Perception plays such a large role – if a person feels hurt by something you say or do, does it matter if the intent wasn’t there? Not really. So we need to teach our children limits and understanding.
I think we need to tell them it can be a very tricky balance, and the key lies within (da da-da DA) awareness and communication.
My son and one of his best friends LOVE to wrestle with each other. They are like puppies, always rolling around on the ground together. But a few months ago I noticed more tears and yelling during their play, with one or both boys complaining of getting hurt in the commotion.
So we sat down and had a little talk. I was amazed (and super proud!) at how many wonderful conclusions the boys came up with (I paraphrase a bit): 1. Wrestling is fun and awesome. 2. Wrestling is only fun and awesome if both players are having fun. 3. It’s important to pay attention to our friends’ body language and words to determine if they are having a good time. 4. Use your words and tell your friend if you’re not having fun wrestling anymore. 5. Respect your friend if they want to stop, and try something new.
I asked the boys for specific things to look for while playing. They said the person would be crying or yelling “No” or “Stop.” They showed me their happy faces that said “I’m having a GREAT time!” and sad faces that said “I am SO not enjoying this” and even angry “I’m MAD!!!” faces.
Since our talk the boys have had a much easier time wrestling. They are learning boundaries and respect, how to read physical and verbal cues from friends. If things get a little iffy, they tell each other, and usually move on to a new activity without much strife.
I think the exact same techniques could be used when dealing with talking to our kids about bullying, don’t you?
All that said, another ESSENTIAL factor in all of this is forgiveness. People are going to hurt you in this life – if they feel remorse and apologize, then forgive as best you can. It will do you as much good as it does them. And if you hurt someone else – intentionally or not – own up and apologize sincerely, make it right. Holding on to hurt and anger or being overly stubborn and inflexible, well, that just hurts everyone involved.