10/07/2014 02:21 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Bully/Jerk -- It's Not the Same

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When my kids were little we would play a game called "Degrees". I would throw out a topic like "hunger" and we would list words that described hunger by degrees... peckish, hungry, famished, starving... like that. For "rain" it might be mist, drizzle, shower, downpour. It was no Dodge Ball or Red Rover, but it killed some time on a car ride. It also taught my kids that they could and should pick and choose words that most accurately describe something... or someone. This skill seems to be lost on many adults who are quick to assign the label "bully" to someone who is several degrees away from deserving that title.

The word "bully" is a loaded (or used to be loaded) word that is now used so often, that it's intended meaning is beginning to lose its impact. I can hear the cries going up now "WHAT!? How can you even say that?! Bullying is bad! We need to bring more awareness to it! Talk about it more! Seek it out and vanquish it!" I agree, bullying is bad -- so bad in fact that I think the very title of "bully" needs to be reserved for those who really, truly are... bullies. More and more I see that noun, that very specific title, being leveled against kids who were undoubtedly out of line, or did not use good judgment, or were being thoughtless, but were not being bullies. Being an insensitive boob is not the same as being a bully. Being a cretin is not the same thing as being a bully. Using strength and/or power to intentionally harm or intimidate someone is being a bully.

I am not downplaying the physical and emotional damage that derives from bullying. I know full well that bullying is a very painful, prevalent reality for kids of all ages. Bullying can lead to depression and even suicide and can have long lasting effects into adulthood. I understand that and I think, like most folks do, that bullying needs to be identified, stopped and prevented.

Here's the thing, over the past few years, with good intentions, parents, teachers and administrators are using "zero tolerance" to label any behavior that is not supportive, kind and compassionate as "bullying". The reality is, not every kid is a nice kid, and even a nice kid can say and do stupid or insensitive things once in awhile. Conflicts are going to happen. Assigning every jerk in the class the title of "bully" diminishes the word and desensitizes kids to what bullying really is. If Joe, who unthinkingly camel kicked Kurt while walking through the hall, is sent to the office for "bullying behavior," and Pete, who deliberately gave Sam a swirly in the bathroom stall is also sent to the office for "bullying behavior," then Joe the dopey camel kicker is no worse than Pete the malevolent swirly giver. Employing "zero tolerance" means treating them both as bullies. To kids "zero tolerance" is evolving to mean "it's all the same". A drizzle is the same as a downpour. It's all rain.

If every uncomfortable encounter a kid has with another kid is labeled "bullying" it not only diminishes the episodes of true bullying that kids have experienced, it also allows parents to dump the whole situation on the school to handle. If I as a parent, hear about an encounter my kid has had with a jerk, I talk to my kid about how to handle the jerk. If I as a parent hear about an encounter my kid has had with a bully, I am going to contact the school before it goes any further and insist that they intervene. Labeling a difficult situation "bullying" puts the onus on the school to handle. The school shouldn't have to use up time and resources mediating every unpleasant encounter. If the actions warrant the word "bullying" absolutely the school should step in. However, due to "zero tolerance" policies, immature oafish behavior is treated the same as premeditated intimidation. Much like every "good" experience does not deserve to be called "awesome," every encounter with an oaf is not an encounter with a "bully".

My kids have all had other kids be "mean" to them. In almost all of the cases, after hearing the stories, I said, "that kid was being a jerk". Only once did I agree that one of my children was indeed being "bullied". Another kid was targeting, singling out, and deliberately making my kid's life miserable for the sake of gaining power and control. In all the other instances, and there have been several, I have said "they are being jerks and you will always have jerks in your life. You cannot control anyone else's behavior. Only how you respond to it." Equally, we have had talks where my kids have said "Mom, I said such and such to a kid at school. Was that being mean?" Being a kid means being inexperienced when it comes to social interactions, and as they hit adolescence it actually gets worse instead of better. Young kids will say and do things without thinking. Adolescent kids will say and do really stupid things without thinking. Kids can be careless, thoughtless and tactless, but that is not the same thing as being a bully.

I do not shrug off asshole behavior with the excuse "boys will be boys" or bitchy behavior with the excuse "that's just how girls are". I think those responses to kids behaving badly are cop-outs, used by parents who don't feel like parenting. I think teachers and parents should not let rude or insensitive behavior slide. It does need to be addressed and handled, but call it what it really is though... rude or insensitive behavior. By using "zero tolerance" to label every jerky or snarky kid a "bully", you not only unfairly label a kid, you allow the bully, the true bully, to be placed in better company than he deserves, because kids, including the bullies, are being taught that there is no difference between being a jerk and being a bully. It's all the same.