A Bullying Myth: Is it Bullying or Character Building?

Bullying is vexing.  Bullying creates anxiety and fear, causes students to avoid coming to school, and affects their ability to learn.  We know too well that it can also lead to despair and students’ taking their own lives

But, we also know that bullying behaviors can be changed, altered, and even eradicated.  We’ve recognized a problem, we have a solution, but bullying is even more commonplace in our schools than ever before. That’s what’s vexing about bullying.

I believe that one reason bullying continues in our schools is that many of the myths surrounding bullying are still held to be truths. One such myth is that children bullying other children is a character builder or a normal rite of passage or just normal play and teasing, so it’s ignored.

Young people slowly build their character by observing family, friends, community members and the larger society.  If we model positive, caring, socially just behavior, that’s what students will see and, hopefully, adopt.  But if we indicate by our silence that intimidation and bullying are acceptable ways to get what you want in life, those are the behaviors students will adopt.

Bullied students are told to stand up and beat up the student bullying them; that too is supposed to build character.  Such a response only teaches that violence is a primary solution to problems in life.  There are better ways to teach problem solving, character development and social justice than through the complicit acceptance of bullying in all its forms.

There are ways to distinguish between bullying and normal play and teasing. Bullying goes beyond teasing when it occurs day after day, when repetition of the harassing behavior happens almost daily, such as brazenly ridiculing and isolating an overweight student.

When the bullied student is also smaller, younger or is perceived to have a lower social status, this power differential is also an indicator of bullying, such as openly calling poorer students “welfare” or “ghetto”. This goes beyond normal play and teasing.

And if the bully intends to do harm and enjoys seeing their target upset, such as taunting a student with food allergies by claiming the bully has peanut butter on his hands and threatening to touch the allergic student, those too are indications that bullying and not normal play is at work.

In conversations and trainings held across the country on bullying awareness, I routinely hear educators speak of unbelievable acts of intimidation and harm by one student to another, starting as early as Kindergarten, yes, Kindergarten.  All forms of bullying are far more commonplace than adults want to believe.

When educators are asked if they were bullied during their days as a student, many admit that they were, and when prodded, can even recall the name of the person who bullied them – so many years ago.  Bullying is NOT child’s play.  Its impact stays with students long into adulthood.

It’s time adults – educators, school officials, and parents – put a stop to bullying.  We must stand up so bullied students know they are not alone, speak up for improved policies and programs, and stop bullying when we see it.  We must be the adults in young peoples’ lives who model caring behaviors that develop ethical, socially just citizens of the future.

Learn more about bullying prevention from NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts With Me campaign.

Joann Sebastian Morris is a Senior Policy Analyst and lead staff on NEA’s Bully Free: It Starts with Me Campaign.

Comments (6)

  1. Well said, Morris, except for one important factor. These caring behaviors you promote are discouraged by law. Teachers can’t touch students anymore. Teaching has become more regimented. Even students are not allowed to show public affection to one another. Fix that first so that a positive model is even possible. Then there will be no room for bullying which only fills the void where genuine caring has been discouraged.

  2. I believe that strong programs need to occur for students around not only bullying, but also students need to develop skills to stand up for themselves (an adult can’t always be there to protect them) and each other rather than always being rescued (which only lasts for the moment). Conflict Resolution skills also should be a part of every school curriculum. These are necessary life skills for interpersonal relationships and in the work force.

  3. Well said Jerry. Teachers no longer have the authority to discipline students who bully others. Send a bully to the principal, the teacher is told he or she has not exercised good classroom management. Call the bully’s parent, the teacher may be told there is nothing he or she can do and the teacher should discipline the child. Worse yet, the parent might blame for the victim.

    Clear disciplinary procedures need to be established in the school when a bully is caught bullying. Those procedures must then be enforced. The issue of how you deal with the victim so that he or she can now feel safe in school also needs to be addressed by school administration

  4. When will bullying tactics by administrators towards teachers ever be addressed? Students see how teachers are treated by the prinicpal and other administrators. When adults who are supposed to be role models act as bullies themselves, how will children ever learn to treat others with respect and kindness?

  5. Violence should not be the primary solution to problem, but sometime it is the best solution.

  6. The tough thing is that teachers cannot be everywhere, and cannot hear everything. As a T.A.who sits in on lunch time to support a child who needs a little extra help, I do hear and see quite a lot (although not everything.) Bullies – and bullies wannabee – use these times to inflict pain upon their victims. Yes, it is a good socialization time, but many children are absolutely not capable to stand up to these bullies or go get help. Most of the time, it is little things, words like “hey, did you notice that nobody wants to sit with YOU!” Then they laugh and walk away. Worse yet, is when they choose to sit at the table with the child, but all of them purposely exclude them from their conversation. Their are no easy answers. We just need to keep our eyes and ears open at all times. Learning to step in or find another way to help both bully and victim requires sensitivity. We all know that the words or violence inflict lifelong scars.

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