Independent Nursery, Junior and Senior School, Edinburgh

What Constitutes ‘Bullying’?

Published as an interview, The Scotsman, Friday, 10th January, 2013



I am becoming a little concerned about the use of the word ‘bullying’ and all the negative connotations that word naturally evokes. There seems to be a flurry of stories regarding the high incidence of bullying, particularly, though not exclusively, in Secondary schools. Bullying is a cancer that can ruin the life prospects, self-esteem and future of those who have suffered systematic and ongoing abuse at the hands of a malevolent intimidator. I would never seek to alter the perception of the very real harm bullying can cause.

However, the word ‘bullying’ has been used so much that my fear is that normal day to day life is becoming overly sterile in a misguided attempt at providing an almost clinically safe environment that actually may result in future adults being overly sensitive, vulnerable and, in some respects, damaged. I now hear commentators using the word ‘bullying’ to describe such innocuous situations as, ‘X didn’t want my son to play hide and seek’, ‘X didn’t sit next to my son at lunchtime’, ‘A and B had an argument in the playground and A hit B’ and so on and so forth. These incidents, whilst clearly upsetting, do not constitute bullying. Bullying is systematic, targeted and relentless.

Being called a name in the playground, being kicked in the shin, being excluded from a group, being made fun of – all of these experiences do occasionally occur but in many ways these experiences, in isolation, help us to be prepared for a world where not everyone is kind to us, to a world that does exclude and to a world that will not allow each of us to get our own way.

It is not a popular view these days, but there are times when we should allow children to fight their own battles before we adults wade in, take over and mediate. If we always fight their battles for them, children never learn to overcome problems with others and they become reliant on the adults around them. That is really dangerous – for we risk a nation of individuals who are fragile beings, incapable of tolerance, compassion or empathy.

What we really need is a period of common sense. True bullying is abhorrent and should be dealt with firmly and quickly. Isolated incidents of ‘falling out’ do not constitute bullying. They are integral and important learning episodes.