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Why We Don’t Use the Word “Bully” to Label Kids

“That kid is a bully.”

We have all heard someone utter these words at one time or another, but is it fair to label a child?

Why We Don’t Use the Word “Bully” to Label Kids

The labels bully, victim, and target are used often by media, researchers and others to refer to children who bully others and children who are bullied.  Yet, you won’t find these terms used in this way on StopBullying.gov. For example, rather than calling a child a "bully," our website refers to "the child who bullied."

Some have asked us:  Why does it matter?  Isn’t it easier to just say “bully?” 

We can certainly understand wanting to use shorthand terms, since it feels a bit clumsy saying “the child who bullied” or “the child who was bullied.”  However, here are several important reasons we avoid using labels like bully and victim:

1.      Using a label sends a message that the child’s behavior doesn’t change from one situation to the next.  Actually, a child may play different roles in bullying, depending on the situation.  She may bully a younger child on the bus on Monday, watch anxiously as a friend is verbally bullied on Tuesday, and be bullied herself online over the weekend.  Research confirms that a small but worrisome group of children are regularly bullied but also bully others (Limber et al., 2012; Nansel et al., 2001; Salmivalli & Nieminen, 2002).

2.      Labels suggest that behavior is fixed and is unlikely to improve over time.  Fortunately, behavior can change for the better.  A 2nd grader may frequently bully a classmate but, with help from teachers and parents, could stop this behavior by 3rd grade.  Nevertheless, the label may have “stuck” and could be associated with him through his elementary years and beyond. 

3.      Labels can be harmful to kids.  In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,”  Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck notes that labels can limit how children see themselves and how other children and adults see them.  She argues that every label sends a message that tells children how to think about themselves.  Too often, the messages say, “You have permanent traits and I’m judging them,” as opposed to “You are a developing person and I am interested in your development.”

Both positive and negative labels can cause problems.  According to Dweck, “when you’re given a positive label, you’re afraid of losing it, and when you’re hit with a negative label, you’re afraid of deserving it.”   These labels may also affect how others treat children who are involved in bullying – even if they describe the behavior using other terms, such as “fighting” or “drama.”  When children are labeled as “bullies,” it may signal to their peers that they are bad kids who should be avoided and it may give adults permission to show scorn.  Similarly, when children are labeled as “victims,” this may send a message that they are weak or deserving of pity – when what they may actually need is help to stop the bullying.

4.      Using labels may suggest that bullying is purely the “fault” of the child and allow us to ignore other factors that contribute to bullying behavior.  Although individual differences in temperament and personality may play a role in children’s involvement in bullying, there are many factors that make bullying more or less likely, such as peer influences, family dynamics, and school climates (Kowalski, Limber, & Agatston, 2012; Espelage & Swearer, 2011).  To reduce bullying, it is important to focus on all of these factors.

So, the next time you are tempted to use the terms “bully,” “victim” or even “bully-victim” as shorthand labels for children involved in bullying…don’t.  Focus on behavior, not on the label.

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