Go cautiously into land of bullies, victims

There is no trivial amount of poetic justice in the fact that my firstborn child is possessed of a sharp wit and quick tongue. Until he gained full access to his speech functions, I was quite certain that he would listen attentively to and laugh appreciatively at my abundance of wit and wisdom for the duration of his childhood and adolescence. But by the time he was able to string together three syllables, I knew I had produced a smart-aleck prodigy.

While this gift of his has boosted the humor quotient in the household significantly, it has also gotten him into a bit of trouble as adolescence takes hold and sharpens his wit. What used to be precocious can now tiptoe – or sprint – across the line of decorum, depending on his audience, intended or otherwise. It is all in good fun, from his perspective. Others, myself among them, do not always agree.

So we have entered an age-old struggle wherein he pushes the boundaries and those around him – peers, parents, teachers, etc. – remind him of just how firm those boundaries are. It is a pretty classic story of adolescence, really. But it is one that gets complicated a bit by the emerging – and completely appropriate – focus on elimina- ting bullying that has become a welcome priority for parents and educators nationwide and locally.

This effort has all the best intentions and was spurred by all the right reasons. Children who are bullied face a litany of struggles that can include depression, anxiety, diminished academic performance and behavioral and emotional problems. There have been recent bullying incidents – via traditional means as well as through social media and cellphones – that have contributed to young people’s suicides across the country. Since the days of “A Christmas Story,” when Scut Farkus threw a snowball at Ralphie, the stakes have raised considerably, as has awareness of the issue and a commitment to eradicating the practice. That is necessary, important work, and Durango School District 9-R, Mountain Middle School and Animas High School are rightly working diligently – and collaboratively – in that vein.

The trouble is in accurately identifying what qualifies as bullying and what is age-appropriate, albeit obnoxious, behavior between peers defining the ecology of their relationships.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as, “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, through time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”

By such a comprehensive definition, just about anything qualifies. Like it or not, kids exclude one another. A particularly sensitive child – or teacher – might perceive a power imbalance where none exists. Name a behavior that does not have “the potential to be repeated.”

While it is true that bona fide bullying will fit the above definition, it is not true that any behavior that shares some traits therein is necessarily bullying, but if it is labeled as such, alarm bells sound and protocols are unleashed. Before applying such a label, then, educators, children and parents must use a note of caution – not so as to downplay actual bullying, but to promulgate an understanding of the difference between what is truly victimizing behavior and that which is kids being silly, bratty, funny, mean or all of the above. Redirection and discipline may be nonetheless appropriate, but considering all childhood behavior through the lens of bullying runs the risk of trivializing what is very dangerous conduct.

My son and his wise-acre friends push this tension frequently and the conversations that ensue too often fall to a bullying finger-pointing fest, with all parties taking turns accusing one another of being “bullies” and “victims.” These are labels that the kids should take great care in applying. Adults must demonstrate even greater diligence before trotting such language into the conversation. Once it is there, the discussion moves beyond the behavior at hand and focuses on the far more serious implications inherent in those labels.

Children should never be made to feel as though they do not have a place in their social, familial and academic environments – no one should. Educators, parents and peers must hold children accountable for behavior that compromises another’s perception of being safe, physically, emotionally or otherwise. At times, that accountability comes in a conversation about bullying, with appropriate consequences. But that should not be the first place we go.

Caution, respect, empathy and understanding are crucial to defusing bullies and empowering their victims. These values are also instrumental to good parenting, educating and relationships of all kinds. It is a good place to start.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.