Recently, a parent stopped me, worried about a 6-year-old "bully". The child in question -- in my opinion -- wasn't a bully, but rather a fairly typical little girl, testing out her pretty advanced verbal skills in more complex ways. Did she hurt her friends' feelings? Probably. And did the friend reciprocate by saying something mean right back? She sure did. The parent was very upset about the impact of this "bully" in the classroom -- and wanted to know what could be done to stop her. But was this truly "bullying?"
No, it wasn't. And I worry about the little girl being labeled "bully", because the word has such negative connotations. So, what IS the definition of bullying? There are many definitions, but all involve the bully being intentionally, repeatedly cruel and belittling to smaller or otherwise less powerful kids. 6-year-old girls telling each other "you can't come to my birthday party", or saying "you don't get to talk!" don't qualify as bullying. And defining normal social "sparring" as "bullying" does everyone a disservice.
Bullying has been getting some much-deserved attention in the media, and as a shrink I can attest to the terrible damage that TRUE bullying does to kids. But as an Early Childhood specialist, I know that little kids -- especially girls -- "practice" their social skills quite a lot with their classmates, and those skills need quite a bit of refining -- in 1st and 2nd grades. Teachers in those grades know that this is pretty common behavior, and gives the kids the opportunity to do some social "sparring" in a fairly safe situation. Do they need limits, structure, and guidance in the process? You bet. But labeling them "bullies" is a major overreaction.
If you have a kid in these grades (as I do -- with 4 kids, it seems someone is always going through this) -- here's what to keep in mind:
- Kids this age need to "try out" their peer-to-peer social skills. Like lion cubs, they need to practice -- but they don't really mean any harm.
- "Victims" at this age tend to shrug off the insults with no problem. Don't jump in to protect your cub until you see she's truly struggling.
- Talk early -- and often -- about the little social struggles among your kids' friends. Make it a point to ask about all the details, not to get anyone into trouble -- but to help your cub think through the next incarnation of the battle. We're building "social muscle" here.
- Role-play regular situations that crop up. Cutting in line, saying "mean" things, and "who is best friends with whom" are typical arguments. Walk through these issues with your child frequently to try out new approaches and solutions. Ask, "What might you say instead next time?"
- Be interested, open, and empathic -- and try to hold back your parental protectiveness, unless there's something more serious going on.
- And of course, if your child is truly being bullied -- or is, in fact, the bully -- please step in immediately to involve the teachers and other parents. This is an age where this kind of behavior can -- and should be -- nipped in the bud.
With some practice (and a little luck), you're setting the stage for your child to come to you with social problems in adolescence and beyond -- for help and support in solving ever-more complex social dramas and situations.
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert