A sad boy up against a red brick wall.


Has the Word ‘Bully’ Begun to Lose its Meaning?

Feb 20, 2019

This morning I had a chat with my five-year-old son about bullying during breakfast. It was a bit of a heavy side dish to our waffles and strawberries, but a necessary conversation nonetheless. It was prompted by a survey that I’d received from his school — a “climate and well-being survey” meant to gather data from parents that will help the school develop a prevention and intervention plan to address bullying.

“Hey buddy, what do you think it means to be a bully?” I asked casually, trying to get a sense of what he already knew about the topic. “Uh, it’s somebody who does something mean over and over again,” he said. “Ah, I see,” I continued. “And is there anyone at your school who’s like that?” He nodded, eyes wide, and told me that a boy in his class has told him more than once that he doesn’t want to be my son’s friend.


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While it would’ve been easy for me to say “you’re right, that kid is being a bully,” and then pass the maple syrup, it would also have be untrue. Is it rude? Yes. But have you met a five-year-old who never says something a little bit mean or rude from time to time? They are notoriously lacking in the filter department, because they’re still learning to navigate social niceties — like not telling someone to their face that they don’t like their haircut, or that they don’t want to be their friend. Bottom line: it’s not nice, but it’s not bullying — it’s conflict, and it’s an unavoidable part of life.

Treating bullying with the severity that it deserves is more important than ever.

That might sound a bit harsh, but the distinction between bullying and conflict is an important one. At a time when schools are trying to implement plans specifically to tackle bullying, and initiatives like Pink Shirt Day become more widely adopted, treating bullying with the severity that it deserves is more important than ever. And that can’t happen if parents are too quick to label any incident of conflict as “bullying.”

Recommended Reading: 'A Cat in a Leather Jacket' — What I Think the Anti-Bullying Books Get Wrong

Personally, I think “bullying” and “conflict” have become too interchangeable, particularly among adults online. Not long ago, a parenting group that I belong to on Facebook featured a thread that devolved into accusations of bullying when a post about getting the flu shot was met with a string of dissenting opinions. Admittedly, several of the comments were unnecessarily rude (as seems to be the trend online), but the original poster was not a victim of bullying. Just as when I write a post that explains how I’m teaching my son about consent and it’s flooded with negative comments that question my abilities as a parent, I am not a victim of bullying. And when a fellow kindergartener tells my son that he doesn’t want to be his friend, my son is not a victim of bullying. To suggest otherwise is to lessen the experience of those who have been and continue to be victims of bullying.

I reminded him of how important it is to keep kindness at the centre of our words and actions.

As we chatted away over our waffles and strawberries, the conversation with my son shifted to another important topic: kindness. I pointed out that while his classmate’s words weren’t really bullying, they also weren’t very kind. Then I reminded him of how important it is to keep kindness at the centre of our words and actions, even though it’s not always easy, and even though we won’t always agree or get along. And I’ll keep reminding him. Because the truth is, I worry about how I’ll navigate conflict and bullying as my kids get older, especially once technology becomes part of the mix. But for now, I’m just trying to teach them to be kind, and there’s no survey needed for that.

Article Author Alicia McAuley
Alicia McAuley

Read more from Alicia here.

Alicia McAuley is a freelance writer, editor and all-around web nerd who never met a pop culture reference she didn't like. The former editor of a parenting website, these days she shares a home office in the suburbs with her husband, two adorable boys, and two lazy cats. You can find her cracking jokes on Twitter @aliciamcauley and pinning projects for her to-do list on Pinterest.

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