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Redefining Bullying For What It Is

Defining Bullying With Its Root Instead of Its Means Will Help Us Treat It Where It Matters
by Cary Trivanovich, School and Conference Speaker

"Bullying involves an imbalance of power."

This statement, set forth by many anti-bullying organizations and seen in scores of websites, pamphlets and articles about bullying, stresses power as a requisite to bullying.  Two thoughts came to my mind when I first read this:  First, "This definition is definitely true for old-school bullying which follows Webster's definition of a bully as 'habitually cruel to others weaker than himself.'  But what about the smaller, mean kid who harasses the stronger gentle giant?"  Second thought: "What about social and cyber-bullying where power is not involved at all?"

These questions that came to my mind lead to a more important question: Does defining bullying as an imbalance of power cause us to turn our focus away from the more important, foundational component about bullying - an imbalance of moral character?

A worldwide news event from Australia in 2011 highlighted a middle school age bully punching his victim at school, whereas a video of the incident became viral on YouTube (http://youtu.be/Ze8rpZSKXQE).  The video is uncomfortable to watch for many people, as this bully is seemingly mimicking a boxer as he dances around his victim, repeatedly punching him in the face.  The victim, acting as if he is thinking "I've had enough," picks the bully up like barbells and slams him down onto the pavement.

The significance of sampling this video is that the bully is several inches shorter than his victim and probably 50 pounds thinner.  This bully was not demonstrating an imbalance of power at all, but rather what looked like an imbalance of wanting to have power.  Being the powerful one there could only have existed in his dreams.  Whichever words we use to define what was involved with the bully's actions, "power" is not one of them.  What we see is a display of simply being mean - A callous heart and disregard for the well-being of his target.  Rather than displaying an imbalance of power, he was merely displaying an imbalance of heartless character.

I thought about my own experience from my 7th grade school year, when a bully who was relentless with his bullying escapades with me, convinced me to "meet in the field after school."  He was several inches shorter than I, thinner, and had a much shorter reach...  (I think you know where I am going with this.)  He, like the Australian video bully, did not have the imbalance of power.  I did.  I have forever wanted to apologize to him for it, too.  He sure had an imbalance of meanness though - that's for sure. 

I also remembered as a high school student, stumbling upon a scene where a mean middle school boy was trying to beat up another boy after school as 20 other students looked on.  As the eldest one on site, I felt I had the responsibility to stop the bully.  But then I noticed something rather humorous: The bully was unable to even lay a hand on his victim - The victim was naturally skilled in his ability to dodge, and just pushed the bully down onto the grass with each attack.  What's more, the victim kept crying out to the bully, "Please stop, I don't want to hurt you!"  I will never forget the humor of that scene as long as I live.  What this scene taught me though, is to define the characteristics of a bully as the one with the lack of character rather than as the means or power he uses to carry out the bullying.  To consider the comparison of his power overlooks the problem.

In all my years of traveling across the country, performing and speaking in thousands of schools and counseling hurting victims along the way, I have witnessed many such instances similar to the three cited above.  Those instances may or may not have included power, but the characteristic that defined the bullying was always the bullies' mean nature.

Bullying first and foremost begins and ends with the heart, an imbalance of heart, if you will - a self-centeredness that is heartless about the well-being of others.  Yes, an imbalance of power is involved in many instances - of course - but merely as the means to bully, just as deception, lies or verbal abuse are the means in other instances.  The imbalance, however, is a step deeper.  It is rooted in the heart.  

I highly respect the anti-bullying organizations that define bullying as involving an imbalance of power, and my message as a school speaker certainly compliments the anti-bullying curriculum that they provide for schools; however I ask them to reconsider the focus of their definition, because it simply puts the focus of an anti-bullying campaign on something that doesn't fix bullying.

Defining Bullying as involving an imbalance of moral character will define not only what is involved in bullying, but the root of all that is involved.  We would then focus on Bullying Prevention at its core - To open the eyes of desensitized hearts that devalue the preciousness of others' feelings and lives.  Such a focus will steer anti-bullying campaigns in the direction of not only helping the bullied and preventing bullying, but it will also help us focus on helping bullies discover the value of character.

 

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