Do we overuse the word “bullying”? I think we do.

Posted on November 19, 2010 by Lara in bullying, gender, peer relations

Like many people, I’m very sensitive to the idea of children or teens being bullied. Stories about bullying, some of them tragic, have made headlines repeatedly in recent months. I’ve also seen first-hand the kinds of emotional trauma and behavioral lashing-out that can result from instances of severe or prolonged bullying. But sometimes I wonder if we’re overreaching a bit, calling every instance of aggression or antagonism “bullying,” and in the process diminishing the true impact of what bullying is — while forgetting that normative development includes some conflict.

Take, for example, a story I saw posted on Metafilter earlier this week. A first-grade girl was teased by her male classmates for carrying a Star Wars water bottle—because Star Wars, according to her peers, is for boys. This caused a great deal of upset for the little girl, who was ready to conform to her classmates’ gender-prescribed behavior in order to avoid being teased. She wanted to leave the Star Wars bottle home….and carry a pink one to school instead.

Now, trust me, the thought of my preschooler’s classmates teasing her about her water bottle makes me feel sad and frustrated and ready to trot out my “girls can do the same things boys can do” mantra—but it does not make me cry “Bully!” Young children are notoriously strict when it comes to gender roles, so much so that they self-segregate into same-sex groups and become little “gender police” (as the little girl with the awesome Star Wars water bottle discovered). Some experts have gone as far as to say that these same-sex groups create two separate gender cultures that function to socialize girls and boys very differently.

Is this gender policing actually a form of bullying? Well, I’d argue that it’s not. True bullying typically involves three specific elements: aggression, enacted repeatedly, directed toward a less powerful individual. Power can refer to size, to strength, to age, to social power—doesn’t matter what kind, as long as the power difference is being exploited in order to maximize the harm.

So while many children will find themselves the unfortunate targets of the gender police, I think it’s going too far to say that they are being bullied. I’d argue the same way for many instances of childhood teasing or antagonism. Children argue, they fight over toys, they disagree over what to play and how to play it. Crying “Bully!” every time a child faces conflict robs them of opportunities to learn healthy ways of resolving it.