Bully Is Not a Noun

'Bully' Is Not a Nounby Allison Wedell Schumacher

When I was about six years old, I used to go grocery shopping with my mom fairly frequently. Every time we went, I would ask for a piece of candy from the bulk bins. And every time, Mom would say no. After being disappointed for several weeks in a row, I concocted a plan. When we got near the bulk bins and Mom turned her back, I sneaked a hand in, grabbed a piece of candy, and put it in my pocket. Brilliant, right?

But the crackly Cellophane wrapper was my downfall. As I tried to unwrap my sugary prize in the car on the way home, Mom glanced at me in the backseat and said, “Where did you get that?” Uh-oh.

I won’t bore you with all the sordid details, but the upshot is that I was marched back into the grocery store and straight up to the manager, who accepted my tearful apology and half-unwrapped, stolen candy with calm gravity.

A poor choice

Only recently has it occurred to me—on the rare occasions when I recall this incident—that no one ever called me a “thief.” Neither my mother, nor the store manager, nor my father or brother (when told about it later) thought to put that label on me, despite the fact that I had clearly taken something that did not belong to me (which is what thieves do). I had made a poor choice, that much was certain. But it was assumed that said poor choice would not be made again.

So why, when children make similarly poor choices in the way they treat their peers, do we call them “bullies?”

When I first began working at Committee for Children nine years ago, the difference seemed to me to be largely semantic. Why not call them bullies? I thought. After all, they bully other children. Doesn’t that make them bullies?

The power to change

The answer, in a nutshell, is no. To find out why, I started with our in-house bullying prevention expert, Mia Doces. She says, “It’s really important not to label children ‘bullies’ or ‘victims.’ Rather than labeling the children, we want to label the behavior in hopes that the child can move on to more positive behavior. To call a child a bully is to suggest that he or she may never break out of that role, whereas to say that the same child is bullying is to acknowledge that he or she is capable of stopping.”

Dr. Susan Swearer is Professor of School Psychology at University of Nebraska and Co-Director of the Bullying Research Network. She agrees that labeling and change (or lack thereof) are closely linked. “It’s really important to think of bullying as a verb and not a noun, so bullying is a behavior that can be changed, not a character trait within a particular child. When we treat them as ‘a bully,’ then we send the message to that child that ‘You can’t change’ or ‘I don’t think you can change.’ And so we really want to communicate to these kids, ‘You know you can change and I can believe that you can change.’” 

The issue of change is one of many reasons to avoid calling a child a bully. According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services' StopBullying website, labeling children this way can “Send the message that the child's behavior cannot change, fail to recognize the multiple roles children might play in different bullying situations,” and “disregard other factors contributing to the behavior such as peer influence or school climate.”

The big picture

The “other factors” point is an important one to remember, in that the issue is bigger than just one kid. Committee for Children research scientist Brian Smith, Ph.D., explains: “It's more accurate to think of bullying as a social behavior or process than as something that one person does, much less something that one person is. We know from research that bullying happens because of a range of influences that are almost all beyond any given individual.”

Dr. Smith also cites the broad tradition in parenting education and classroom behavior management that differentiates between the behavior and the person: “There’s a difference between bad behavior and a bad kid.”

After all, we are the sum of so many different behaviors, interests, activities, and influences; why should bullying win out, especially when we are working so hard to stop it? Children who bully are also students and soccer players and ice-cream eaters and comedians and goldfish owners and writers and gymnasts. So in the hopes of stopping the unwanted behavior, should we not focus instead on the positive things they’re doing (while, of course, explicitly working to help them understand why and how to stop the bullying behavior)?

Every word sends a message

In the end, we simply may not realize the profound impression our words make on the children who hear them. Stanford University psychologist and author Carol Dweck writes, “Every word and action sends a message. It tells children—or students or athletes—how to think about themselves. It can be a fixed mindset message that says: ‘You have permanent traits and I’m judging them.’”

That certainly isn’t the message we want to send to our children, is it? And since research further shows that bullying puts children at risk for such future problems as substance abuse and criminal convictions, why should we saddle them with a seemingly permanent label as well?

In case you’re wondering about the stolen candy, I can tell you I didn’t grow up to be a thief—in fact, I never stole anything again. And most kids who bully will stop, too. One way we can all help them do that is to use the word “bully” as a verb, not a noun.

References

Committee for Children. (2005). Steps to Respect Review of Research. Seattle, WA: Author.

Committee for Children. (2012). Social-emotional learning and bullying prevention (White paper). Seattle, WA: Author.

Committee for Children (Producer). (2013). Dr. Susan Swearer [Video interview]. Seattle, WA: Producer.

Dweck, C. (2010). Parents, teachers, & coaches. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2013 from http://mindsetonline.com/howmindsetaffects/parentsteacherscoaches/index.html

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2013). The Roles Kids Play. Retrieved Feb. 14, 2013 from http://www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/roles-kids-play/index.html

Allison Wedell Schumacher is the PR and Communications Manager at Committee for Children. She still likes candy, but always makes sure she pays for it first.