Bullying: Are We Back to 'Kids Will Be Kids'?

Last month, U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller dismissed a case filed by the parent of a middle school student in Wisconsin, in which the parent claimed their child had been subject to several forms of bullying since 2011. Judge Stadtmueller stated that the Court was "reluctant to make a definitive determination that [the student] was, in fact, the victim of bullying," and that the pervasive "cruel nature of children" will always trump any "rules and regulations" put forth to prevent or punish such behavior. The judge went on to say that the student in question also participated in bullying behavior and "perhaps invited some of the other students' conduct in a classic case of escalating hostility."

I cannot comment on the merits of the case in question. I am not a lawyer, and I actually think there's a slippery slope when our solution to bullying is criminalization and litigation. What I can comment on is the notion in the Judge's comments that bullying is a rite of passage. For better or for worse, the primary effort and success of the past decade of bullying prevention and anti-bullying campaigns has been to change this very attitude.

On March 10, 2011, at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention (an event that I had the absolute pleasure of attending and helping to plan), President Obama said the following:

If there's one goal of this conference, it's to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It's not. Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it's not something we have to accept.

And we have come a long way. As one piece of evidence, consider this: In a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling to get a sense of America's disdain for Congress in January 2013, bullying was one of the few negative items that was less popular than Congress (joined by gonorrhea, meth labs and communism). To give you a sense, even root canals, colonoscopies and traffic jams were more popular than Congress. Bullying is pretty unpopular.

We can all agree. We don't want to see kids dying by suicide (as a note, bullying is only a factor in suicide, not a cause.) We don't want to see kids missing school because they are afraid. We don't want any of the negative outcomes associated with bullying to happen. We are all against bullying.

But therein lies the question and the rub. As Judge Stadtmueller wrote, he could not determine if, in that case, "bullying" had happened. We are all against bullying until we have to define it. The problem is, what one person experiences as bullying might very well have been another's, "joking around." Many youth can be provocative and annoying but does that mean it was okay for those who are bigger, more popular or otherwise more powerful to bully them? This is where our agreement disintegrates and where the rite of passage argument comes back full swing. The division between "normal" childhood conflict, joking around and bullying is a very thin, ever-changing line.

In March, Emily Bazelon argued in a New York Times article that the word "bullying" is overused and as such we must use a strict research-based definition (the one that says that bullying is typically repeated, involves a power imbalance and intentional aggression that even researchers find hard to operationalize in the very research that links "bullying" to the negative outcomes we so want to prevent). I fired back that resorting to such a strict definition is not the solution to, "everything is bullying," because in the end what it creates is, "nothing is bullying," and we are back at, "kids will be kids."'

So what is bullying? Everyone's definition is different just like everyone's experience is different. Bullying is subjective. Yet, this is problematic when our "solutions" to bullying require the definition to be objective. You can't punish someone for something that is objectively, "joking around," and yet, to the hurt child who refuses to go to school, that really was bullying.

So despite all of the progress we have made changing the idea that bullying is a rite of passage, I can't say I'm surprised at Judge Stadtmueller's assessment. It is the same assessment each of us makes when we deny that a child's experience was bullying. Until we move beyond trying to define bullying and simply reacting to it, to actually trying to create the supportive environments that prevent bullying before it starts, bullying will always be seen as, "kids will be kids."