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Modern Parenthood

A six-year-old bully? Really?

Can a 6-year-old be a bully? The bully label is sweeping the country, and any act of childhood unkindness becomes 'bullying.'

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A month back, we ran a post by Paula Reed, an English teacher at Columbine High School, who suggested we might do well to explore the “shades” of bullying. Not all bullies are the same, she wrote. There are certainly cases of what she termed the “classic bully” – the mean predator who relentlessly and cruelly picks on the weakest kids in class. But there are also socially dominant kids who are popular and aggressive, she wrote, and “normal” kids who are trying to navigate the social land mines of growing up, and who sometimes act unkindly to their peers in a misguided attempt to protect themselves or increase their own popularity.

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is a longtime Monitor correspondent. She lives in Andover, Mass. with her husband, her two young daughters, a South African Labrador retriever and an imperialist cat..

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Is this nice? Nope. Is it bullying?  Well...  it certainly shouldn’t be treated the same as the relentless cruelty of the classic bully.  Which is the problem with “no tolerance” anti-bullying policies being instituted in schools across the country.

This is also the problem with parents who label every act of meanness to their own children as bullying. 

Bullying requires school, and potentially police, intervention.  Other people need to do things to make it stop;  parents and children give up the agency for mediation, resolution and simply learning how to deal with the reality that some people out there are jerks. Bullying, in its current cultural definition, has an innocent victim and a “bad” perpetrator.  And, particularly troubling (and encouraged by pop culture interpretations and movies such as “Bully”), bullying often leads to victims either committing suicide or killing their classmates.

This is not a helpful message, people.

Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that adults are more concerned about the way children treat each other.  For too long we’ve had a “boys will be boys,” “girls will be girls” attitude about children’s meanness. Adults should take seriously their role to teach – and, more importantly, model – kindness.

But to get back to our Texas story: It’s crazy to be talking about a 6-year-old, no matter how obnoxious he may be, with the same labels as those used for Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers student who used a web camera to spy on his gay roommate, or the students who mercilessly picked on Massachusetts student Phoebe Prince, who hung herself after weeks of abuse.

Because it's this blending of terms, this obliteration of meaning behind the words, that makes vigilante justice on an elementary school student seem acceptable.

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