John Rosemond
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

The principal of a middle school confided in me that “this bullying thing has gotten completely out of hand.”

He wasn’t referring to bullying itself, although that’s certainly out of hand. Instead, he referred to the fact that many parents have become overly sensitized to the possibility that their kids might, at any moment, become bullied and overreact, therefore, to any indication that they have been.

“You wouldn’t believe what parents think is bullying,” he said. One mother complained that a boy had poured a small amount of dry snack mix down the back of her son’s shirt. The mother wanted the perpetrator subjected to waterboarding, or something along those lines. The principal described other instances of “bullying” that were not bullying at all, but simply pranks.

It might be helpful if everyone were able to agree on a rational definition of exactly what separates actual bullying from normal childhood mischief. That lack of consensus may be a major share of the problem. For example, the definition at StopBullying.gov proposes that bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a power imbalance.”

That’s the sort of nebulous definition that fuels a mother’s outrage at snack mix being poured down her son’s shirt. I prefer something along the lines of the definition found on Wikipedia: “repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another person physically or mentally.”

That captures it nicely, I think. Note that the aggressive behavior in question is not incidental, but repeated. And it is done with the malicious intent to do harm, both physically and mentally, to another person. I would only add that an additional purpose is to keep the victim in a state of near-constant fear. And by the way, I was the target of at least three bullies during my school years. I wish all they’d done was pour snack mix down my shirt on a daily basis.

School officials have told me that parental overreaction has become bigger than the problem of actual bullying. Occasional teasing doesn’t fit the definition proposed by Wikipedia. Nor do one-time pranks like tripping, name-calling or any other form of mischief that might cause embarrassment but is not done with the intention of keeping another child in a near-constant fear.

I received an email from the mother of a 21-month-old boy who, she claimed, had been bullied by a girl at nursery school. The girl pushed her son and grabbed a toy he had been playing with. First, that’s not bullying. That’s what toddlers occasionally do when they’re in groups. Second, the mother’s overreaction, repeated over time, could cause her son to become overly sensitive to any perceived slight. He could develop a victim mentality and do himself more mental harm than any bully could.

Sometimes adults should tell a complaining child: “If that’s all you’ve got to complain about, then you live a very good life.” Unfortunately, a principal or teacher can’t say anything along those lines. A child’s parents can say it, though and sometimes they should.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions at www.rosemond.com.