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There's No Such Thing as a Bully

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Scandalous -- of course there are bullies! A bully is anyone who is mean to my darling child! Any kid who doesn't invite my child, who teases or mocks or pushes my boy, who turns a shoulder or doesn't answer a question, who chooses to hang out with someone else is a bully, right?

Except, wait a minute. My darling children have done some of those things to others. I'm sure they didn't mean it, of course! After all, nice kids aren't bullies, right? And bullies are mean, contemptible kids who will grow up to be thugs who are never happy, don't you think?

Sorry, no.

Everyone who has ever lived with a child knows that the most wonderful, good-hearted kids can behave in an ugly fashion at times. The idea that kids adopt a social role in elementary school and then live that role every day for the rest of their childhood is both naïve and dangerous.

As Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out pointed out last year in her Newsweek article "The Nine Most Common Myths About Bullying" social roles flex and change constantly. The vast majority of children and teens will find themselves in each of the three roles in any bullying encounter -- victim, bully, bystander -- on different occasions.

So it's naive to label kids as bullies. Honestly, for a generation of parents who would cut out their own tongues before "labeling" a kid, you'd think this would be easier to avoid!

Why is it dangerous to call someone a bully? Because a bully is a bad kid. A bully is mean, contemptible, to be avoided or shunned. With all the anti-bullying curricula in schools, kids are crystal clear about this -- a bully is the villain. When a child or even a teen hears that she is a bully, she may very well feel stuck. Is this the only role available now? If she's "bad" it can seem impossible to fix.

Further, as a parent I have to argue with anyone who labels my kid as a bully. That is a condemnation. Tell me my child has behaved badly and I can jump in to improve the situation. Call my kid a bully? My knee jerk reaction may land my knee in your groin. Figuratively speaking, of course. Mostly.

Bullies are hard to redeem. Bullying behavior is much easier to change.

Most of our kids will bully someone -- a younger sib, a classmate, even a friend -- this school year. So how can we actually help? Stop calling anyone a bully. Start labeling the behavior instead of the kid.

Bullying behavior can be fixed. Feeling victimized can be stopped. Bystanders can use empathy to show leadership. All of these conversations are easier when adults recognize what kids already know -- almost all kids bully sometimes and almost all kids get bullied on occasion.

Change the conversation!

Take heart. If you completely disagree and you're about to blast me in the comments, you're not a bully! Just don't forget the empathy to limit your potentially bullying behaviors...