09/21/2011 11:40 am ET Updated Nov 21, 2011

My Grandma's Going to Beat You Up!

Bullying and its younger sibling cyber-bullying have become quite a focus of attention in recent years. 47 states now have anti-bullying laws on the books. On any given day The Huffington Post and most other news outlets will have at least one story related to bullying. I'm not so sure this is entirely a good thing.

Please don't rush to the comment section to scold me for being an insensitive school leader. As a child and throughout my adult life I cringed at cruelty. While there is some truth to the "settle it on the playground" attitude of my parents' generation, I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now. The answer to bullying is not to encourage the bullied to become bullies.

And let us stipulate that bullying with racist, sexist and homophobic weapons is both a personal and social disease. Children or adults who suffer from the cruelty of bigotry must be protected by all of us, personally, professionally and legislatively.

So what's the problem?

Evidence supporting the so-called epidemic of bullying is scarce. As with many other social and medical phenomena, it is unclear whether the behavior has increased or the reporting of the behavior has increased. Of course, to the victim of a bully this distinction is of no comfort. The most severe cases of bullying get a great deal of attention, as perhaps they should. They may be instructive examples. But they are also great fodder for media drawn to sensationalism. Is it possible that dramatic media attention to the relatively rare, tragic consequences of bullying has distorted the issue as it plays out in ordinary circumstances?

I raise this question because few seem to be acknowledging the unintended consequences of this great concern with bullying. While I can't claim that my own experiences are representative of a national pattern, I suspect I am not alone in observing another trend.

A not entirely hypothetical case: The parents of a middle school girl contacted her advisor, reporting that she was being systematically "bullied." Her behavior at home had changed, they claimed, and the once happy child was reluctant to come to school at all. As such things go, before long the middle school director was receiving repeated phone calls, email messages and requests for meetings. The complaining parents were not only seeking comfort for their daughter, but had very specific ideas about the consequences for the "bullies." When their demands were not immediately ceded to, the matter ended up in my office. (If you secretly long to be a school administrator, perhaps this will temper your enthusiasm!)

I listened to them sympathetically, but pointed out that the "evidence" seemed to indicate typical social strain, not anything that might earn the "bullying" label. They were nearly apoplectic, citing news stories of teen suicides. The mother sent me a long, dense tome about the deep psychological scars left by bullies. They later brought in their therapist, who delivered an unctuous, offensive lecture about my school, my administrators and our lack of sensitivity to her "bullied" client. The therapist had no knowledge of the facts, but had been fueled by these anxious and (I think) well-meaning parents. I'll skip the details, except to report that the central act of "bullying" was a temporarily withheld invitation to a classmate's birthday party.

Meanwhile, the school counselor met regularly with the "victim." She seemed to gain perspective during the day, only to be confused by night. Her parents were hell-bent on making the case that she was bullied. They ultimately withdrew the child from the school. I will leave it to you to determine which act in this short tale represents a greater disservice to a young girl.

In a more recent case, two kindergarten students reported that a classmate had threatened them. The threat? That his grandma was going to beat them up. I'll wait to see if overreacting parents make an appointment with me to complain about the bully. I'm really looking forward to meeting this grandma on Grandparents Day!

I can cite scores of similar cases at my school when social incidents, some genuinely requiring school and family attention, were so distorted by having "bullying" within easy reach that the real issues were never attended to. In more than one instance, the parent who resorted to a "bullying" charge had been duped by their own child, who was, if there was one, the actual bully.

In the "not entirely hypothetical case" above, the parents angrily accusing someone else's 10-year old girl of being a "bully" may have engaged in bullying themselves! Unlike the kids, they should know better -- which might be a good criterion for distinguishing bullying from the normal bumping and bruising of childhood.