The term "bullying" is bandied about very freely in our society. Recently, many celebrities have felt compelled to "speak out" against bullying, as a result of some recent events that garnered significant media attention. It is generally assumed that we all know what bullying is, but as a US citizenry, we actually have no clear concensus on the actions and factors that constitute true cases of "bullying".
True bullying is, in fact, a very serious event which needs to be handled forcefully and immediately by adults in authority. Children cannot handle bullying on their own—they need adults to intervene. The most important step in protecting children against bullying is teaching them to effectively identify and report it. If adults cannot reliably and clearly explain exactly what "bullying" is, how can we expect children to know? And how can they secure the protection they need if they don't know the correct words to put to their experiences? I continually notice that children are very confused when it comes to knowing the difference between "teasing" and "bullying", and most of the "anti-bullying" programs of the last decade do more to muddy the issue than to help. As adults, we have a responsibility to clearly understand the issue before leading children astray through emotional vilifying and uninformed proselytizing.
The specific actions that someone engaging in bullying does may vary widely. A useful definition of bullying focuses less on the specific actions of the perpetrator and more on qualities related to the interaction between the perpetrator and the target.
1. The cruel behaviors are repetitive, perpetrated by a specific person or group against another specific person or group. It is not a one-time incident and it is not accidental.
2. The perpetrating person or group has more power than the target. This may be physical, intellectual, or social power.
3. The target person or group feels scared, powerless, and may want to avoid going to school to avoid the perpetrator(s).
Adults need to be able to identify what bullying is and isn't so that they can empower children to handle situations effectively. A child who learns how to deal with teasing and bugging on his own will learn a valuable life skill that he will take into adulthood and continue to use regularly. A child who receives immediate, pointed, and powerful assistance with a case of true bullying will feel protected, valuable, and safe.
An aside: As a society, we are quick to demonize those nasty "bullies" and coddle the "poor victims". However, we fail to realize that bullying exists in all levels of society and we actually reward and support it in many ways. Children don't come up with this stuff on their own—it is partially hardwired by our survival instinct and partially passed down by parents, communities, and the mass media. The power differential applies to adult relationships, as well—it often appears economically, politically, and socially. We are often afraid to go to work, to certain gatherings, or even to the polls to avoid the powerless feeling we get from experiencing bullying. When we as adults understand true bullying and learn to identify it, maybe we can let go of the victim mentality and stop supporting bullying with our votes, dollars, and admiration. Then we will be effective role models for our children and the best anti-bullying campaign will have begun.