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Is It Rude, Is It Mean, Or Is It Bullying?

Life seems to be returning to a new type of normal as families, schools, friendships and teachers find new rhythms to the heartbeat of living in a pandemic. I remember the day when school resumed, listening to the joyful and excited shrills of friends being reunited. I looked out onto the playground and saw collisions of embraces and affections as students reconnected with their peers. Laughter, joy and masks filled the playground and for a moment, all seemed to be back to normal. The first few weeks (even months) of students returning to schools seemed to have brought a new form of unity that surpassed the history of the past. Bullies and Queen Bee’s seemed to have directed their power towards the greater good as they and their peers wrestle with the effects of Covid while trying to make it through the year with their hope (and school grades) intact. However, a few months later, Covid is still a thing and reports of bullying have seemed to have made its way back into the staffroom and family dinner table (well that didn’t last long).

Teachers take every accusation, comment and report quite seriously, sounding the alarms and calling all parties to the table to find solutions, justice and ultimately reconciliation. However, upon investigation, many teachers and school bodies have found that many reports of bullying are simply children being mean or rude. Increased conflict amongst students is surprisingly normal during this time as children are trying to find some form of control in a world of uncertainty. It is expected that as a result of a long (and isolated) break from their usual social hierarchies, that students will challenge, change and try to balance new power struggles that have formed during and after lockdown.

It is important to distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, parents, and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene. It is important to distinguish the difference in order to avoid a bit of “boy who cried wolf” phenomena. If kids, parents and teacher improperly classify rudeness and mean behaviour as bullying – it may make actual reports and cases of bullying difficult to identify and address which can result in serious emotional and/or physical harm.

So let’s explore the difference.

Rude = Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else. This may be a friend forgetting to keep you a seat at the break, someone burping in your face or interrupting you while you were speaking. Often when this rude behaviour is addressed, a child may feel remorseful and usually will apologies when confronted. Rude behaviour usually happens by 'accident.'

Mean = Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice). Mean behaviour walks a close and thin line to bullying. Mean behaviour can be making a rude comment about someone’s clothing or appearance, laughing when someone stutters during a class speech or pointing out someone choice of lunch during a break as disgusting. Meanness often sounds like words spoken impulsively, in anger or irritation. However, mean behaviour is usually regretted and stopped when confronted or disciplined.

Bullying = Intentionally aggressive behaviour, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power. Children who bully have no sense of remorse or regret. They pay no attention to how the other person feels and will continue with their behaviour despite negative consequences. Bullying can be physical, verbal, relational or carried out via technology (cyber). Bullying is a serious offence which can have a negative consequence at both a school-based, as well as a legislative level. Within the South African context, there is no all-encompassing legal solution to address bullying. Existing legislation does, however, allow for ways to prevent, report and penalize bullying and cyberbullying. So in other words - this can result in very serious consequences!

Knowing the difference is crucial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it assists us in helping children overcome social challenges, promote emotional regulation and encourage resiliency. Secondly, it informs teachers, parents and schools on the course of action in response to the situation so that it can be addressed appropriately. Lastly, knowing the difference avoids “the boy who cried wolf “situations. We need to ensure that children always feel like they can trust us to help them when the situation grows out of their control. They need to know that they can trust us to listen and actively intervene when their world becomes overwhelming!

We hope that the next time your child comes running for safety and guidance that you will appropriately explore the situation at hand. Listen to what they have to say and help them to identify if it was rude, mean or bullying so that we can create a safe space for each child to grow and flourish.


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