It's mean - but is it bullying?

We all want to make bullying history. But how?

Some experts suggest we should begin by re-thinking the word itself.

One in four Aussie kids experiences regular bullying. That’s a world record - and a shameful one.

Increasingly, this behaviour is playing out online, as even young children gravitate toward social media to connect. But you know this already.

What you may not know is that the way we talk about all this may be making the problem worse - starting with the word “bullying.”

The word is “so misused and misunderstood, even among parents and teachers,” according to Canadian friendship skills consultant Dana Kerford, that it’s become “confusing for children.”

What bullying isn't

Careless or tactless commenting is not bullying, Kerford insists. Fighting or refusing to play with or 'friend' someone isn’t bullying either. Labelling kids who engage in such normal social behaviour as “bullies” is stigmatising, she believes. It also doesn’t solve the problem.

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Bullying or just plain cluelessness? The difference is critical. 

True bullying is intentional and repeated nastiness. Kerford prefers the term “mean-on-purpose behaviour.” All kids can figure that one out, she says.

As for accidental unkindness, well, that happens - and if handled correctly can become a learning opportunity.

“I absolutely do not believe that a little kid who’s learning these skills should be labeled a ‘bully.’ They just haven’t learned to manage those really big feelings and emotions that they have inside in a healthy way yet.”

Kerford is dubious about one-off anti-bullying days that feature inspirational speakers who tell stories of overcoming abuse at school. “That doesn’t give children anything they can use,” she points out.

Cultivating "self-governance"

Instead, Kerford advocates teaching kids hands-on strategies of self-reliance - starting with calling out hurtful behaviour and treating themselves with respect.

It’s all about “self-governance” - training children to “resolve their own conflicts, make good choices around who they’re playing with and stand up to mean-on-purpose behaviour. We get this culture of harmony and kindness and respect and teachers can have their lunches and recesses back.”

Independent Anglican girls’ school Perth College implemented Kerford’s skill-based approach six years ago - and reports a significant decline in conflict. Girls are more resilient, and staff are relieved to be able to spend more time teacher and less time referreeing, program director Deb Perich told the Sydney Morning Herald this week.

As for perpetrators, Kerford warns against having too much empathy. Excusing hurtful behaviour because the bully is also suffering can make perpetrators feel justified. “There’s a tipping point when empathy becomes enabling,” she adds.



Ending bullying in our schools is going to take more than slogans. Creating a culture of harmony and self-care is a long-term project. Family Zone’s holistic approach to cyber safety and education is a part of that project for more than 600 premier schools in Australia and beyond. Learn more at familyzone.com/schools.



Topics: cyberbullying, screens in school

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