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What Is Bullying?
Mom with a View

What Is Bullying?

If every act of cruelty is bullying, then the word loses all meaning.


There were a lot of responses to last week’s column – many of them negative. I would like to try to clear the air and re-explain my position – in the interests of clarity and not necessarily with any expectation of more positive responses!

Many readers pointed out that the “Kick Me” sign was…well…not nice. I agree. I didn’t say it was a positive action. I think I suggested that it didn’t reflect a highly developed sensitivity to the needs of others (to paraphrase). It’s not good character, nor is that type of behavior permitted under Jewish law. I didn’t advocate those pranks. I just raised the issue that perhaps it didn’t fit within the definition of bullying, that perhaps by including a one-time action like this in their zero tolerance policy, the New York City school system has diminished what bullying means rather than enhanced it.

One reader was vehement: Clearly you have never been bullied nor had a child who had been bullied, or you would NEVER have written this article!

You are right that, thank God, I haven’t. But I think you are mistaken in assuming that this is clear from the piece. You believe that if I or my child had been bullied, we would welcome this policy and advocate the boy’s suspension. That simply isn’t true. In fact, particularly if my child had experienced bullying – the day in-day out trauma of emotional and/or physical abuse that damaged their self-confidence, made them dread going to school and, at its worst, led to self-destructive behaviors – I would be even more adamant about my position. I would feel even more strongly that the one-time occurrence of posting a mean sign on a child’s back bore no resemblance whatsoever to real and serious bullying.

If rules are applied too broadly, they become ineffectual and void of purpose.

I would be outraged to include that child in the same category as mine. I would feel that this decision trivialized my child’s experience, not the opposite. If every act of cruelty is bullying, then the word loses all meaning. If rules are applied too broadly, they become ineffectual and void of purpose.

I can’t recall the exact details but I have a vague memory of hearing a news story about a boy who went camping with his parents over the weekend, Swiss army knife in his backpack. He forgot to remove it before going to school the following Monday and was suspended for violating the school’s zero tolerance policy on weapons.

But the boy wasn’t violent. He didn’t have a nefarious purpose. His real crime was a memory lapse. To lump him with the perpetrators of the Columbine Massacre is absurd. It makes everyone look foolish and distracts from the serious issues at stake.

So let me state it clearly for the record. I am NOT in favor of cruelty or meanness, of hurtful pranks or of jokes at someone else’s expense. I’m just saying that one-time non-violent act doesn’t usually fit the criteria of bullying.

We lose perspective when our children are involved. We let our emotions rule. We almost can’t help it; it’s in the hard-wiring. But a more hard-headed approach would, I think, demonstrate that if everything is bullying, then, in the end, nothing is. And that a thoughtful, narrowly applied policy accomplishes more than a broad catch-all system ever will.

March 13, 2011

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 15

(14) Anonymous, March 11, 2013 12:27 AM

Let's finally call bullying what it really is. Bullying runs the gamut from verbal to physical abuse. It is antithetical to the teachings of the torah. Furthermore, if we would not allow adults to treat one another in this manner, then we certainly should not allow children to behave this way toward their peers.

(13) Anonymous, March 24, 2011 1:27 PM

I agree entirely

"a thoughtful, narrowly applied policy accomplishes more than a broad catch-all system ever will." That sounds logically correct, and I think your article has alot of merit. There's only one question; how do you define between severe bullying (which is usually more discreet) and practical jokes? Or, to be more clear, what is this "Thoughtful, narrow policy" that you are reffering to?

(12) Anonymous, March 17, 2011 5:16 PM

zero tolerance doesn't allow for anything to develop. "responsible parents"? you should seriously reconsider your relationship to a changing reality. you may be too old to learn new tricks, but the school policy has. go through your two articles and sort out the arguments and examples into "relevant" "irrelevant" and other various "ad hoc" and "ad hominem" argumentation. I'm surprised that an "educator" of Judaism and therapist with a law degree can sink so low and far away from a) common sense and b) lessons of the Torah... conclusion: you ought to be more responsible in your thinking/writing and above all your perception of the world around you, " I think that responsible parents could speak with their child and resolve this situation in a much less confrontational manner. But no one asked me…" quite right! no one asked you...

(11) Alan, March 17, 2011 2:38 AM

Zero tolerance or zero judgement

Lumping together a harmless prank with repeated bullying removes the need for judgement on the part of school officials. Detention and an apology is certainly more appropriate for the "Kick Me" sign than any type of suspension or expulsion.

(10) Anonymous, March 16, 2011 6:29 PM

Thanks, but I still disagree

Emuna, I do appreciate your clarification here. And I agree that a boy who simply forgot to take his knife out of his backpack should not be punished as if he were a violent offender. But I do wonder if perhaps his "forgetfulness" was more a feeling that he needed to protect himself. I also agree that smaller pranks need not be punished as violent acts, but they should still be punished. When we parents do intervene for our kids, even on the seemingly small things, we give them the confidence and security that will allow them to handle things on their own as they get older. Kids need to know that we parents will do everything we can to protect them. Finally, who is to say what's harmless vs. what's harmful? If I had gotten kicked and hurt because someone put a "kick me" sign on my back, it wouldn't be so harmless and silly.

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