Phyllis Britt

Phyllis Britt

What exactly is bullying?

When I was a kid, it was not unusual for someone to be known by terms that were not necessarily meant to be flattering. Who of us didn’t know a “Four-Eyes” or a “Shorty” or a “Teacher’s Pet”? (And some of us may even remember being the brunt of such ridicule.) Was that bullying?

The question reminded me of an interview I saw a long, long time ago. (It may have been around the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings.) The topic was sexual harassment. The interviewer asked an attorney (who happened to be a woman) what she defined as “sexual harassment.” Her response was, “Sexual harassment is anything that makes you uncomfortable.” Anything covers a lot of territory.

So I’m wondering if in 2019 you could argue that anything that someone says that makes you feel bad about yourself is to be considered bullying.

When my kids were younger, I saw both sides of this. My son had a friend who was really small in middle school. There was a group of kids who would steal his fries at lunch every day and threaten the kid if he complained. Was that bullying? I’d say so. But once Mac (who was much bigger, taller) was sitting with him when these bullies walked over and started their daily routine. My son said, “Leave him alone.” One of the kids replied, “And what are you going to do about it?” Mac stood up, towering over the bully in question. At that point the bully said, “Oh, never mind,” and walked away. (As an aside, the friend in question was still small the next year, and my son had a different lunch period. When a group of kids again started stealing his fries every day, he had the perfect answer: He would take his retainer out and bury it in the middle of the fries. The would-be bullies were no longer interested in eating his fries.)

Then one of my daughters was the object of ridicule in elementary school. And the bad news is that two of her teachers always managed to turn it around and suggest my daughter was the problem – mainly because she always reacted dramatically, unfortunately just what her classmates were hoping for.

However, I don’t think there’s ever an excuse for constant name-calling and isolation.

Now, one of my granddaughters has come home saying she “just wants to crawl in a hole and die.” No 9-year-old should ever feel that way.

Let me preface my next comments by saying that I had no illusions that my child was always innocent, and I have no illusions that my granddaughter is never in the wrong.

But again, what exactly is bullying?

The school district’s official policy says this: For purposes of this policy, harassment, intimidation or bullying is defined as a gesture, electronic communication or a written, verbal, physical or sexual act reasonably perceived to have the effect of either of the following:

• Harming a student physically or emotionally or damaging a student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of personal harm or property damage.

• Insulting or demeaning a student or group of students in such a manner as to cause substantial disruption in, or substantial interference with, the orderly operation of the school.

I’m not sure where an action crosses the line. If a child accidentally backs into another and quickly says, “I’m so sorry,” but the other child then shoves her anyway, is that bullying? If the first child then replies, “I said I’m sorry. Why did you push me?” And the second child says, “Because I can,” is that bullying? If two girls are constantly saying, “You know no one likes you” or “No one wants to play with you” or “No one is your friend,” is that bullying?

Is bullying – not unlike what the attorney said about sexual harassment – in the eye of the beholder (victim)?

Of course, I realize that some children are not as good at ignoring unkind comments. I know that as a child, I grew up with three other girls in the neighborhood who were my age. In about sixth grade, one of the three began a campaign to ostracize me from the group. In retrospect, I think she was hoping for a volatile reaction – hysterics, anger, something. What she didn’t realize was that, as an only child, I was used to being alone and didn’t mind it at all. I believe my response was the equivalent of “whatever.” As a result, things quickly returned to the previous status quo. The girl in question didn’t get the reaction she had expected, so it wasn’t worth pursuing for long.

But my granddaughter hasn’t quite figured out how to handle such abuse. She’s done her fair share of crying. She’s tried to figure out what she’s doing wrong that makes these girls want her to feel bad about herself. Her mom has tried to make her see she is not at fault here, to encourage her to ignore what she can, but that takes a level of maturity that most elementary-age kids don’t have.

We’ve all tried to help my granddaughter see that part of these girls’ motivation may be jealousy – my granddaughter is cute, talented and smart (no bias here, of course), and she has one friendship that seems to be the kind we all hope for – someone who will likely turn out to be a lifelong friend. At least that’s what I wish for her, and maybe that’s what we all long for.

I will say that, to the school’s credit, the teachers, guidance counselor and principal have all reacted quickly to see that these behaviors do not continue, to be sure all the girls involved understand the consequences of their actions and, essentially, to remind them of the Golden Rule.

All I can say is that we as grandparents and parents need to somehow instill in our kids the importance of empathy, to get them to see what effect their words and actions have on others. Perhaps if we all could put ourselves in the shoes of the victim, we’d think twice about causing such harm to another.

I may have previously mentioned that this idea was brought home to me by a teacher my grandson Cade had two years ago. Cade is one of those kids whose grades go up and down – mostly As and Bs with the occasional C. When he was in fourth grade, his parents were somewhat exasperated one grading period and talked to the teacher about how to get him to work consistently at his best academic level. The teacher’s response was, “Please don’t worry. The academics will come. Right now you are raising a really good kid and a kind person. That’s far more important.”

Amen to that.