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Year of the Bully

I'm not a fan of cruelty, but I knew the anti-bullying craze had gone too far when my 10-year-old called my husband a bully the other night for insisting she do her homework and shower before watching TV.

"You're being mean," she told him. "You know, if I report you, you can go to jail for that. You're being a bully."

Remember when kids used to threaten to call HRS when their parents spanked them? Regardless of how you felt about corporal punishment, at least you knew what they were talking about. Bullying? Not so much.

My kids are having lots of "bullying awareness" classroom conversations this school year. It seems to be confusing them more than sensitizing them. The term has become so over-used that even some of the adults don't know how to differentiate between a normal fall-out between two human beings and the real deal.

"No to bullying" has become the "say no to drugs" campaign for this young generation. They don't really understand what they're saying no to; they just know it's supposed to be bad.

Florida law doesn't really clarify things. The state's anti-bullying act, passed in 2008, cites these examples of what may constitute bullying: teasing, social exclusion, threat, intimidation, stalking, physical violence, theft, sexual or racial harassment, public humiliation or destruction of property.

That pretty much sums up my entire middle school experience.

There are many shades of gray in between teasing, flirting, taunting and bullying. When I was my youngest daughter's age, a boy at my bus stop used to chase me and try to hit me over the head with his books. Sometimes I would dare him to do it then sprint away. Even back then I was savvy enough to know that by fifth-grade standards, this was flirting, not sexual harassment. Today, I worry that boy would probably be expelled and possibly charged with a crime.

I definitely don't support the kind of torture that has led some kids to commit suicide. But I do think the level of playground bullying that many contend is happening out there is greatly exaggerated. The anti-bullying crusade has replaced stranger danger and peanut allergies as the latest Parent Overreaction.

Nobody likes their kid to be the victim of a snide remark or a pushy kid. But we are doing children a disservice if we always jump into the fray and don't teach them how to cope on their own with name-calling and teasing. A study by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International found that 37 percent of all Americans report being bullied now or at some point in their careers. Some might look at that study and say we're in a bullying crisis. I look at that statistic and see the real world – and all the more reason to teach our kids to stand up for themselves.

My daughter ran to me the other night because some kids on our street wouldn't let her play basketball with them. She wanted me to go out and make them stop "bullying" her. I told her she had to go fight for herself.

Was she being bullied? Was I enabling bullies by not intervening?

It's our job to teach our children to be kind. We should never allow unbridled cruelty. But if there are normal conflicts between kids, sometimes the best response may be, "Go try to sort this out yourself."