Is that Child Mean or is He a Bully? Why it’s Critical that Adults Understand the Difference
In our culture of 24/7 news cycles and social media sound bites, adults have a better opportunity than ever before to bring attention to important issues related to a child’s well-being. In the last few years, Americans have collectively paid attention to the issue of bullying like never before; millions of school children have been given a voice, 49 states in the U.S. have passed anti-bullying legislation, and thousands of adults have been trained in important strategies to keep kids safe and dignified in schools and communities. These are significant achievements.
At the same time, however, gratuitous references to bullying are self-defeating, creating a “little boy who cried wolf” phenomena among professionals and students alike. When rudeness and mean behavior are incorrectly labeled as “bullying,” this actual life-and-death issue among young people loses its urgency. To keep this bona fide school safety issue on the front burner of educators, mental health professionals, and youth workers there is a need to draw a distinction between behavior that is rude, behavior that is mean, and behavior that is characteristic of bullying.
Rude = Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else.
From kids, rudeness might look like burping in someone’s face, jumping ahead in line, or bragging about achieving the highest grade. On their own, any of these behaviors could appear as elements of bullying, but when looked at in context, incidents of rudeness are usually spontaneous, unplanned inconsideration, based on thoughtlessness, poor manners, or narcissism, but not meant to actually hurt someone.
Mean = Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice.)
The main distinction between “rude” and “mean” behavior has to do with intention; while rudeness is often unintentional, mean behavior very much aims to hurt or depreciate someone. Kids are mean to each other when they criticize clothing, appearance, intelligence, coolness, or just about anything else they can find to denigrate.
Make no mistake; mean behaviors can wound deeply and adults can make a huge difference in the lives of young people when they hold kids accountable for being mean. Yet, meanness is different from bullying in important ways that should be understood and differentiated when it comes to intervention.
Bullying = Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power.
Experts agree that bullying entails three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance, and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Kids who bully say or do something intentionally hurtful to others and they keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse—even when targets of bullying show or express their hurt or tell the aggressors to stop. Bullying may be physical, verbal, relational, or carried out via technology.
It is important to distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, youth workers, parents, and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene. As we have heard too often in the news, a child’s life may depend on a non-jaded adult’s ability to discern between rudeness at the bus stop and life-altering bullying.
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