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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sticks and Stones

Remember the old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?"  That's true, unless those words come with intentional malice over a period of time, and involve an imbalance of power.  Bullying is a hot topic among parents and educators, but in a November 25, 2012 article (, Signe Whitson, L.S.W., offers the following important words of caution:

 "In the last few years, Americans have collectively paid attention to the issue of bullying like never before; millions of school children have been given a voice, 49 states in the U.S. have passed anti-bullying legislation, and 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, I have already begun to see that gratuitous references to bullying are creating a bit of a “little boy who cried wolf” phenomena. In other words, if kids and parents improperly classify rudeness and mean behavior as bullying—whether to simply make conversation or to bring attention to their short-term discomfort—we all run the risk of becoming so sick and tired of hearing the word that this actual life-and-death issue among young people loses its urgency as quickly as it rose to prominence."

Ms. Whitson goes on to explain that "it is important to distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, youth workers, parents, and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene." 

Rudeness is generally behavior that is not done with the intent to hurt someone else.  An example of this is jumping ahead of another student in line.   "Mean" behavior is intended to hurt the recipient, such as telling someone, "You don't need to eat lunch; you're already too fat."  Sometimes it is simply impulsive cruelty, brought on by angry feelings. Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional and repeated over a period of time.  It involves an imbalance of power and the bully has no remorse.

Since children learn what they live, educators and students alike are often the targets of verbal and physical abuse by young people whose families have not fostered compassion at home.  We can love them, encourage them, and be a role model for them.  We can show them what compassion is and possibly influence them in a way that inspires them to fulfill their dreams and to become a positive role model for future generations.

If you have success stories about teaching compassion in the classroom, please submit them to, or feel free to share them in the comments section of this blog.  

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.

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