As a school counselor and national educator on bullying prevention, I am privileged to meet with youth development professionals, parents, and young people from across the United States and Canada who generously share their personal experiences related to bullying. I have been brought to tears more times than I can count listening to adults and kids alike talk about their sense of powerlessness in peer situations or their feelings of humiliation at the hands of others. A young teenager blew me away with his articulate, poised, yet painful accounts of physical and verbal bullying by his soccer teammates. An elementary-school girl described how she had to shed her Australian accent within a month of coming to the US because of shunning by her peers. The commonness of it all routinely astounds me.
Without a doubt, many of the stories of bullying I hear are horrifyingly and unspeakably cruel. But some of the stories are, well, really not so bad. Take this story recently shared with me by a personal acquaintance:
“You’d never believe what happened to Katie yesterday. She was getting off her bus when this kid from our neighborhood threw a fistful of leaves right in her face! When she got home, she still had leaves in the hood of her jacket. It’s just awful! I don’t know what to do about these bullies.”
“Was she very upset when she got home?” I asked.
“No. She just brushed the leaves off and told me they were having fun together,” she said.
Aware that kids often try to downplay victimization because of the embarrassment and shame they feel, I asked, “Did you get the sense she was covering for the boy?”
“No. She really seemed to think it was fun. She said she threw leaves back at him, which I told her never to do again! The nerve of those kids.”
I needed clarification. ‘Those ‘kids’? “Was it just the one boy throwing leaves, or were there a bunch of kids ganging up on her?”
“It was just this one boy who lives about a block from us.”
“Is he usually mean to her? Has he bothered her after school before?” I asked, eager at this point to figure out what the bullying issue was.
“I don’t think so. That was the first time she ever said anything about him. It was definitely the first time I noticed the leaves all over her coat. But it better be the last time! I won’t stand for her being bullied by that kid. Tomorrow, I’m going into the school to make sure the principal takes disciplinary action!”
While I always want to be careful not to minimize anyone’s experience, I hear “alarming” (read: benign) stories often enough to conclude that there is an important need to draw a distinction between behavior that is rude, behavior that is mean, and behavior that is characteristic of bullying. I first heard bestselling children’s author Trudy Ludwig (2019) talk about these distinguishing terms and, finding them so helpful, have gone on to use them as follows:
Rude = Inadvertently Saying or Doing Something That Hurts Someone Else
A particular relative of mine (whose name it would be rude of me to mention) often looks my curly red hair up and down before inquiring in a sweet tone, “Have you ever thought about coloring your hair?” or “I think you look so much more sophisticated when you straighten your hair, Signe.” This doting family member thinks she is being helpful. The rest of the people in the room cringe at her boldness, and I am left to wonder if being a brunette would suit me. Her comments can sting, but remembering that they come from a place of love — in her mind — helps remind me what to do with the advice.
In camp settings, rudeness often takes the form of behaviors such as:
- Jumping ahead of someone in line
- Burping in someone’s face
- Bragging about achieving the highest score in an activity
- Taking the last seat at a lunch table
- Making a joke that accidentally goes too far or hits a nerve
- Splashing someone with water
Under a microscope, any of these isolated behaviors can be overanalyzed, labeled as bullying, and condemned. And while we aim to cultivate a camp experience full of well-mannered, patient, considerate kids who always wait their turn, never brag, know how to joke appropriately, and consistently include everyone, it’s developmentally unrealistic to think that campers will never make a mistake. When a young person’s behavior is spontaneous, unplanned, or ill-mannered but not premeditated or intended to hurt someone, it’s critical for adults to be able to discern the behavior as rudeness rather than bullying. Young people make mistakes; our job is to help them stop repeating the same mistakes. Labeling a camper as a bully does not help them learn the skills they need to be a better community member, but rather further alienates them from a positive group experience.
Mean = Purposefully Saying or Doing Something to Hurt Someone Once (or Maybe Twice)
The main distinction between “rude” and “mean” behavior has to do with intention; while rudeness is often unintentional, mean behavior aims to hurt or depreciate someone. Campers are mean to each other when they criticize clothing, appearance, athletic ability, outdoor skills, intelligence, coolness, or just about anything else they can find to denigrate.
Meanness also sounds like words spoken in anger — impulsive cruelty that is often regretted in short order. Very often, mean behavior in kids is motivated by angry feelings and/or the miguided goal of propping themselves up in comparison to the person they are putting down. Commonly, meanness in campers sounds an awful lot like:
- “Are you seriously wearing that T-shirt again? Didn’t you just wear it, like, yesterday? That’s so weird.”
- “You are so fat/ugly/stupid/gay.”
- “I hate you!”
An added consideration in distinguishing behavior is that meanness typically occurs between young people who are friends — or at least friendly — but who find themselves in some type of conflict or disagreement. As a result of this temporary, situation-specific rift, the kids are unkind to each other. Mean behavior rarely lasts beyond the incident, and the campers involved do not attempt to broaden the conflict to involve others. While we want to help all campers learn to disagree without arguing and to resolve conflict without cruelty, we do them a disservice by labeling their inability to do so “bullying behavior.” Rather, camp staff are in a great position to teach kids these valuable skills through discussion and role modeling.
Make no mistake; mean behaviors can wound deeply, and camp staff can make a huge difference in the lives of young people when they address mean behavior directly and consistently, establishing expectations of kindness and holding campers accountable when they deviate from rules. Yet, meanness is qualitatively different from bullying, and understanding the difference can lead to intervening more effectively.
Bullying = Intentionally Aggressive Behavior, Repeated Over Time, That Involves an Imbalance of Power
Bullying behavior entails three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance, and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Kids who bully say or do something intentionally hurtful to others, and they keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse — even when targets of bullying show or express their hurt or tell the aggressors to stop.
Four Types of Bullying Behavior
Bullying may be physical, verbal, relational, or carried out via technology:
- Physical aggression was once the gold standard of bullying — the “sticks and stones” that made adults in charge stand up and take notice. This kind of bullying includes hitting, punching, kicking, spitting, tripping, hair-pulling, and stealing someone’s personal property.
- Verbal aggression is what our parents used to advise us to “just ignore.” We now know that words can indeed hurt, and can even cause profound, lasting harm. Verbal aggression includes name-calling, teasing, harassing, and threatening.
- Relational aggression is a form of bullying in which kids use their friendship — or the threat of taking their friendship away — to hurt someone. Social exclusion, shunning, hazing, and rumor-spreading are all forms of this pervasive type of bullying that can be especially beguiling and crushing to campers.
- Cyberbullying is a specific form of bullying that involves technology. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, it is the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices” (Hinduja & Patchin, 2009). Notably, the likelihood of repeated harm is especially high with cyberbullying because electronic messages can be accessed by multiple parties, resulting in repeated exposure.
One of the most wonderful elements of camp life is the disconnection from technology that kids get to experience. While cyberbullying does not actively occur during camp hours, we know that the hurtful interactions via social media, texting, and gaming that occur both before and after camp can impact a kid’s experiences while at camp (and beyond). Although staff can’t control online interactions outside of the actual camp experience, they can engage kids in conversations about “netiquette” and treating fellow campers with respect both in person and online — always.
Why Is It So Important to Make the Distinction between Rude, Mean, and Bullying?
In our culture of 24/7 news cycles and social media sound bites, we have a better opportunity than ever before to bring attention to important issues. In the last few years, Americans have collectively paid more attention to the issue of bullying. Millions of school children have been given a voice, all 50 states have passed anti-bullying legislation, and hundreds of thousands of adults have been trained in important strategies to keep kids safe and dignified in schools and communities. These are significant achievements.
At the same time, however, lumping all incidents of unwanted behavior into the bullying basket actually sets back progress in bullying-prevention efforts. Camp staff’s time, attention, and resources can become overwhelmed if incidents of bullying are overreported. Camp administrators can’t respond to anything effectively if they are forced to respond to everything equally. What’s more, when adults take charge of incidents that campers have the skills to handle on their own, we rob them of valuable opportunities for interpersonal growth. It is important to distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying behavior so that camp staff know what to pay attention to, when to coach campers to use conflict-resolution skills independently, and when a problem is at the level that requires adult intervention.
How Can Camp Staff Reliably Distinguish between Rude, Mean, and Bullying Behavior?
Four simple screening questions can be used in camp settings, youth organizations, schools, or any setting in which allegations of bullying occur regularly and responsible adults need to discern between levels of aggression to respond appropriately.
“Yes” responses to all four questions give a strong indication that bullying behavior has occurred and needs to be more thoroughly investigated by a qualified camp administrator.
“No” responses to any question, on the other hand, indicate that a problematic behavior has not risen to the level of bullying. These rude or mean behaviors are likely best addressed by the camp staff who receives the report from the child and then communicated to the appropriate level of authority. Every effort should be taken to address the behavior with the camper as soon as possible.
Screening Questions for Addressing Reports of Bullying
- Was the behavior carried out on purpose?
- Was the behavior intended to cause harm? (Harm may be physical, verbal, relational, social, emotional, and/or via electronic communication)
- Have there been patterned and pervasive acts of this behavior? (An average of two or more incidents per week, over the course of two or more weeks)
- Does an imbalance of power exist and/or is the target of the behavior unable to stop the bullying behavior from continuing? (Whitson, n.d.)
All young people deserve to have their reports of bullying behavior taken seriously by adults. Whether or not the behavior is determined to be bullying, all campers benefit from feeling heard and understood.
Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. W. (2009). Cyberbullying fact sheet. Retrieved from cyberbullying.org/cyberbullying_fact_sheet.pdf
Ludwig, T. (2019). Trudy Ludwig: Making a difference in kids’ lives, one book at a time. Retrieved from trudyludwig.com/
Whitson, S. (2014). 8 keys to end bullying: Strategies for parents & schools. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Whitson, S. (n.d.). Screening tool for professionals & parents addressing bullying allegations. Retrieved from signewhitson.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/ScreeningTool.pdf
Signe Whitson, LSW, C-SSWS, is the director of counseling at the Swain School and is the author of seven books, including 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents and Schools and Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying. To download a copy of the Screening Tool, please visit the Tips & Strategies section of her website, signewhitson.com. There you can also find a free activity idea to help teach kids the critical differences between rude, mean, and bullying behavior.