Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Defining Bully

As I began researching the realm of bullying, I was quite surprised by the different definitions presented to me. It seems on an individual level, we all have our own ideas about what a bully actually is or does. The media plays it’s role in that definition. The experts have a different, well established definition that doesn’t fit the dictionary description at all. And as you will see below, the dictionary itself, whose sole task is to define our words – seems to be in disagreement with itself. So what is BULLY, exactly?

When we hear the word bully, many of us draw up images of a mean spirited, tyrannical brat of a child hitting or belittling a smaller one. But bully's take on many forms. Look at the two following definitions on the word "Bully".

Miriam-Webster online dictionary1:


2 a: a blustering browbeating person; especially: one habitually cruel to others who are weaker

   b: pimp

3 : a hired ruffian


1 : to treat abusively

2 : to affect by means of force or coercion

And according to dictionary.com2:

- noun

1. overbearing person who intimidates weaker people


2. to intimidate

To be bullied simply means to be coerced or abused in some manner. Which implies (to me) that anyone who behaves this way is a bully. Yet, how many times have we been coerced or abused in some way and felt bullied by someone who actually fit the noun description?

Where did this stereotype come from? As a woman, who was bullied as a child more by other girls than by big oxish boys, I still instantly think of the blustering browbeating person, and to be completely truthful, I usually think of a large stupid boy – like Nelson from the Simpson's, or that mean kid in A Christmas Story. This is the imagery society has placed on the noun bully, even though bullies can be just about anybody.

The word has a simple implication, but is far more complex than that. I doubt anyone as an adult can honestly say that they have never been bullied in some way, shape or form; and if we're completely honest with ourselves for a minute, I doubt anyone of us can say we've never bullied someone else.

How many of us were actually bullied by a person who fit the description in the definition? I know, we look back on our childhood days and on those who were mean to us and get a little comfort to see them described that way. But reality is this: Bullies are anybody and everybody. If we truly want to open up the heart of the matter of bullying, we need to first shed the stereotypical image of a big dumb meanie on the playground who demands lunch money as payment for not giving us wedgies.

Therefore, I give this definition of a bully:

Any person, group of people, institution, government, entity etc. etc. who uses coercion, verbal, physical, mental abuse towards others to get their way.

Think about this for a moment:

Parents sometimes bully their children.

Teachers sometimes bully their pupils.

Companies bully other companies.

Bosses sometimes bully their employees.

Wives sometimes bully husbands; husbands sometimes bully wives.

Governments bully other nations, and/or their people.

And yes. Kids bully other kids.

Many bully experts, however, believe that behavior must follow a certain criteria in order to qualify as bullying. These standards include3:




                Involve an imbalance of power.

**I disagree that behavior must be repetitive in order to qualify as bullying, as it is defined not only by Miriam-webster, but other vocabulary sources such as Dictionary.com, not to mention the general public. To this point: This past holiday season, my husband took our oldest two sons to a toy store on Black Friday to pick up a highly anticipated toy that was going on sale. At the store, the customers were told that there were a limited number of the items and that no one was allowed to take them until the bell sounded. However, other people had made off with all but one of the play kitchens he was intending to buy. As he waited, standing directly beside it, a very large man walked up and stood immediately in front of him, bristling and grunting and verbally trying to intimidate him. He made it clear that he was after the play kitchen, and became belligerent when my husband informed him there was only one left. At the sound of the bell, my husband took the play kitchen, put it in his cart and ran for it as the man chased him down. When it was clear that he wasn't able to frighten my husband into abandoning the play kitchen, the man took up a basket and rammed it into my 14 year old sons back before running away. I clearly define that as bullying, as the man attempted to coerce and force my husband to give him an item he wanted and when he didn't get it, he retaliated by attacking a smaller person who was unlikely to fight back.

While repetition or duration of behavior is cited as a definition of bullying due to the chronic effect on the targets self-esteem, I also argue that traumatic instances such as I describe above can indeed have lasting effects on the self-esteem of those involved. Being attacked in a public place, in the presence of his own father most certainly can make a person feel helpless, vulnerable and inadequate, which is detrimental to ones ego.

Because many experts clearly define bullying as a repetitive act, or acts that occur over an extended time period, and those singular acts such described above as harassment, I will, for the sake of simplification, cover both harassment and bullying and I will refer to both as bullying when the behavior is defined as intentional, malicious and involves an imbalance of power. This is not to disrespect those experts who have dedicated their lives to this subject, I just don't care to argue the semantics.

When we wonder why children bully, let's not think of it in terms of one child being big, mean and stupid and the other being small, weak, and helpless. We need to recognize that we are ALL bullies in some way, even if we are not intending to be malicious, simply by our need to control our surroundings and the people in them. Bullying is a behavior, a natural instinctive form of manipulation we use to get what we want. To feel in control. To be the person in charge. Who doesn't want to be in charge? Therefore, bullying is a normal part of humanity and there is a bully inside each and every one of us. If we're going to have an honest and open dialogue on this issue, it is time we recognize the bully in ourselves.

3 - "Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard", by Sameer Hinduja, Justin W. Patchin

How do you define bullies? Does your idea of a bully differ from the textbook definition? Why do you think the media has such strict parameters for portraying bullies in film?


  1. Its like the conversation we ahd on the pone yesterday... I honestly never realized I "bully" my kids. I'm loving these blogs you are posting, its openning up a whole new perspective on the whole bullying situation.

  2. I disagree that malice has to be present. Plenty of people bully others believing it's "for their own good." Kids who bully don't always do it maliciously--they just want to have their way and don't have the appropriate tools to do it any other way.

  3. That's true Heather! We see that all the time. It may certainly feel malicious from the perspective of the one who is targeted, but the one who is bullying may not have that intent.
    Gail, I am so glad you're enjoying them. :)

  4. Thank you for bringing this topic up! It is an interesting description of bullying. I am a little confused "We need to recognize that we are ALL bullies in some way, even if we are not intending to be malicious, simply by our need to control our surroundings and the people in them."

    With this description it feels that pretty much everything everyone does to communicate or interact with others can be labeled as bully. Not sure if that is your idea but this is how I am reading it. It feels that if someone asks me for a favor they are trying to manipulate my thoughts or schedule by bending to them or if I stop my son from running into the street it's considered controlling their behavior and being a bully to their kids. Imo it feels that the description of bully is too inclusive. I feel that at some point the key difference between everyday actions is the intent. I am confused. Can you help me understand what you meant?

  5. Angeliina, I see what you mean. It can be a lot of grey area. As parents, it's our job to keep our children safe and often that trumps their emotional needs. As you pointed out, you cannot simply let your child run into the street so you have to physically prevent him from doing so. I'm not saying that's bullying, it's being a parent and sometimes though, being a parent means you have to bully a little. We have to do this, but I feel it's important to recognize it. You and I subscribe to a very similar school of thought when it comes to raising kids, therefore, I may be referring to things that you yourself would never do. I feel that spanking is bullying, absolutely. I'm not criticizing anyone for spanking, but once again, they should recognize it for what it is. As another poster pointed out, some people will bully others with the mindset that it is for their own good. When I read this comment, I thought about parents who force their children to dress a certain way or subscribe to a specific pattern of behavior because they feel it is what is best for the child.
    This is an example I recently gave:
    Say you have to go to the grocery store and you're on a tight schedual. Your 4 year old is refusing to get dressed. You know that if you don't go to the store very soon, you cannot do the necessary things to ensure the kids will be fed and properly cared for. Many parents in this instance would spank their child for noncompliance. But the question I asked this person: Would you grab your child and begin to dress them? This person responded, yes. I understand this is doing what must be done, for the good of the family. But looking at it from the four year olds perspective: They were just manhandled and physically forced to submit to something they did not wish to do. Now think about that later in the day, when that four year old begins to show a little aggression towards their younger sibling.

    I'm not saying that we should all give into our kids and let them do what they want - but understanding our bully behavior, even if it's necessary, can help us to understand the complexities and roots of our childrens behavior. I feel that recognition is key.
    Further, I do think there is a difference between asking someone for a favor, and trying to force it out of them. Asking someone to drop by or do something for you, and accepting the "No" response is different than going forward to coerce and manipulate through threats and other hostile behaviors.
    I hope that helps you see my point more clearly, thank you for reading!

  6. Awww..Yes this is much clearer for me. Thank you!

    I see what you are talking about. I see how forcing a child to get dressed can be felt that way and I am reflecting on the times that I just needed to get out of the house and picked him up to make it faster for everyone. I see what you are wanting families and people to see about being a bully. Your right. The typical bully image is much easier to see and in different parenting style communities spanking, time outs and other stuff is also easier to see. But it is the smaller things within every parenting style that we can do, that as seen by a little one can feel like being bullied. As parents we take for grant our size and statue compared to a little person.

    I think of the way babies are born in the medical field and the use of force to twist, pull, suction, prick, and all kinds of man handling that goes on as our first impression of the world outside of the womb. I feel bullying can be felt as such a young age. Even in the womb with parents who don't see their children as conscious participants. Anyways I will get off my soap box now. Thanks again for the explanation.