Bullying or bad behavior - what's the difference?

We are sensitized to declaring behavior bullying.  We all feel compelled to protect our children from physical, emotional and electronic bullying. And we all know that protracted bullying can lead to terrible consequences. 

But it's not always bullying. 

Bullying is defined by physiological and educational experts as repeated attacks on the same child by the same child perpetrated by a child who has more power than the victim. Specifically, from Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (a “model” by Blueprints for Violence Prevention):

"A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself."

This definition includes three important components:

1. Bullying is aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions.
2. Bullying involves a pattern of behavior repeated over time.
3. Bullying involves an imbalance of power or strength.

And as parents, many of us don't distinguish between bullying and bad behavior - making it much harder to deal with actual bullying, creating unrealistic expectations for our institutions and mis-labeling innocent kids. 

Kids hurt each other sometimes. They say nasty things. They get into fights and push each other (or worse). They write stupid and mean things in email or social media. And the child who does any one of those things to another must be held accountable for their bad behavior with swift and appropriate consequences.

Bullying is repetitive. It's intentional. It's bad behavior on the repeat cycle.

I don't sanction bad behavior. Every child makes bad decisions sometimes; and should learn the consequences of breaking a rule. I applaud my school's commitment to positive discipline and I partner with them when my child makes a bad judgement call and behaves poorly. My children know their punishment. And we talk about different choices for the next time. The actions of schools and coaches need to be different for bad behavior and bullying.

Bullying indicates deep psychological issues for the bully. That child needs attention, therapy and perhaps a different learning environment. By definition, bullying cannot be diagnosed in a single incident. But once recognized, must be addressed.

Bad behavior is something that a child does that hurts another arbitrarily. Bad behavior is random. Bullying is purposeful.

So when our child reports being hurt, before we cry "bullying" to our schools and our friends, we need to ask if this sort of thing happens TO YOU repeatably by the same person. Get specific examples if the answer is yes; all children exaggerate but sometimes they don't. Specifics help. In all cases, the hurt child deserves an apology in any case and coaching for how to deal with any future altercations (words, actions, adults).

As parents and a community, we should fight the desire to publicly humiliate any child - it doesn't teach anyone anything. Other than a heartfelt apology, we are not entitled to knowing how someone else's child was punished. I know that when my child is the wrong-doer, he is swiftly punished but not humiliated. I give our teachers, coaches and other parents present permission to mete out appropriate punishment right then and there. Let me know and I'll reinforce the punishment at home. I trust that every other child who does something wrong is dealt with the same way.

Let's stop hurting children, schools, camps and other institutions with the scarlet letter of bullying or a bullying problem. Let's be swift and proactive when bullying is actually occurring. Let's teach our children not to exaggerate by modeling it. By recognizing the difference between bullying and bad behavior, we can help all our children learn and be safe.