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February 15, 2013

Parental overreaction has become bigger than actual bullying

NORMAN — 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 and wanted the perpetrator subjected to waterboarding, or something along those lines. 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. That lack of consensus may be, in fact, a major share of the problem. For example, the definition at StopBullying.gov proposes that bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a power imbalance.” That’s the very sort of nebulous definition that fuels a mother’s outrage at snack mix being poured down her son’s shirt. 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. And by the way, I was the target of at least three bullies during my school years. I wish all they’d done was pour snack mix down my shirt on a daily basis.

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