Is the term ‘bullying’ overused in schools?

Special Reports

Braden Bell is quick to tell you he is not a parenting or child development expert, but at Harding Academy in Nashville, he’s a choir teacher, the assistant director for middle school student life, head of the theater program, and he has five of his own children.

“I feel like I’ve made every mistake possible, so everything I write is written from ‘here’s a mistake I’ve made’ or ‘here’s a lesson I’ve learned,'” Bell said.

Bell is also a freelance parenting writer. An article published last August in The Washington Post was one of his most popular. The headline begins: Not all unkindness is bullying. 

“People now default to saying something is bullying, and it’s not. There are any number of unkind, inappropriate, undesirable behaviors that are not bullying,” Bell explained.

In the piece, Bell references the website StopBullying.gov that defines bullying as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance and is repeated over time. 

“Sometimes kids need to learn how to negotiate and navigate not-ideal, unkind not-great situations, and if you call everything bullying, you remove their ability to do that,” Bell said.

Bell suggests parents ask kids questions to find out if a negative experience is actually bullying. Is someone threatening them? Spreading rumors? Or attacking them physically or verbally? 

If so, students and/or parents should report that to the child’s teachers and if need be, administrators, so the situation can be resolved quickly. If it’s not bullying, Bell said it’s a teaching moment for the future.

“Being an adult is learning how to deal maturely and productively with obstacles,” Bell said. “Not everyone will like you and sometimes people are mean.”

Bell warns when parents intervene too quickly, they don’t allow their children to develop mechanisms to cope with unpleasant situations.

“If you don’t have the ability to get through that without being paralyzed or being devastated, that’s a real problem,” Bell said. “That is a lifetime of problems for that child who is not able to navigate.”

So what can parents do if another kid calls their child a name? Or doesn’t invite them to the movies? Start by asking your child how he or she can take control of the situation.

“So often we spend so much time talking about what someone did, and how someone acted, and how someone made them feel, and there is something really empowering and clarifying to say ‘Well, what are your choices?” Bell said.

And it’s a conversation you have to have frequently.

“I think we’re used to sitcoms where at the end of a sitcom the parent sits down and they have this wonderful talk. It doesn’t work like that in real life; you have to stay engaged and close.” Bell said. “Knowing that you are the unchanging constant in terms of your affection for them, your love for them, that you are with them and you’re in their corner.” 

That constant love and support will be a sense of comfort and a pillar of strength to help children conquer life’s toughest situations.

Bell said if your child is being bullied at school and you aren’t seeing action from a teacher or counselor, you need to go up the chain of command at the school or within the district.

You may even need to contact law enforcement to ensure your child’s safety. 

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