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Is it bullying or just a playground conflict? Many parents find it hard to let kids work it out

Shutterstock / Dawn Shearer-Simo

Afew weeks ago, Heather Carey was driving her son home from a soccer game. He was frustrated. His teammate never passed the ball.

“Why not talk to him about it?” Carey asked.

“I can’t. I don’t want him to think that I’m bullying him,” he replied.

She was shocked.

“I said, ‘That’s not bullying — bullying is when you have control and power over someone and purposefully demean and put them down,’ ” she recalls.

He wasn’t convinced.

Bullying has become an appropriately high-profile issue: It is devastating and corrosive. Massachusetts now requires public schools to maintain an anti-bullying and intervention plan, the result of a 2010 law in the wake of two suicides by students who were reportedly bullied.

Advertisement defines the behavior as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”

This justifiably heightened awareness about bullying has an ambiguous edge, though: Not every childhood hurt fits the definition. Carey understood the difference and was able to explain it to her son. But it’s easy for children — and in turn, well-meaning parents — to become needlessly alarmed, educators say.

Not invited to a birthday party? Ignored by a best pal at recess? Sometimes it’s a normal, age-old bump in the road. And it’s essential to understand the difference, says Michael Thompson, supervising psychologist at the Belmont Hill School and the author of books including “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children.”

“Anti-bullying programs have made schools much safer. I totally approve of them,” says Thompson. “But parents defining every little hurtful act or every act of social cruelty as bullying devalues the word and confuses children.”

It can also strip children of their innate resilience, he says.


Recently, Thompson encountered a mother of a 6-year-old who was upset because her daughter’s feelings were hurt. Another child had called her an idiot on the playground. Thompson gently explained that while nobody likes to be called an idiot, it’s not bullying.

Thompson also recalls another parent of two fifth-grade twin boys.

“Her sons would come home from school and tell her all the mean things kids had done to each other and to them. So she would pay attention, go into the school, and tell the children what they’d done wrong. She was destroying her sons’ social life, because her presumption was that her boys can’t defend themselves,” he says.

He stopped another father from writing a legal brief to a school after his fourth-grade daughter complained about a fickle friendship with another girl. Dad considered it bullying; in reality, it was the natural course of on-again, off-again fourth-grade relationships.

Seth Kleinman, a social worker for the Danvers public schools, says that as bullying has come into focus, today’s parents are more aware and able to support their children in positive ways.

But in other circumstances, “The pendulum has swung a little far. When you’re hyperaware, you develop worry about bullying happening, when in fact it’s just a conflict or there may not be bullying at all. I see both,” he says.

Where does this compulsion to intervene come from? Thompson says the issue is that parents don’t want to feel helpless, and at the same time, human beings are hardwired to report more bad news than good. Your child might be more prone to complain about the kid who didn’t sit with them at lunch and gloss over the one who passed the ball at recess.


In recent years, schools have implemented social-emotional learning programs to impart coping skills. These programs aren’t merely a response to bullying; they also address a heightened climate of anxiety and scholastic pressure. But such programs also aim to differentiate between bullying and ordinary childhood tussles, helping children to discern when to solve a problem independently and when to confide in a trusted adult.

These programs help children “recognize and manage their emotions and solve everyday problems,” says Jim Vetter, executive director of the Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts.

Social-emotional learning generally comprises five core competencies: self-awareness, which is recognizing one’s own emotions; self-management, which is the ability to regulate emotions; social awareness, encompassing perspective and empathy; relationship skills, which incorporate listening and cooperation; and responsible decision-making, which is making constructive, ethical choices.

In practice, this means that today’s kids are more attuned to a child getting left out during a game and will problem-solve together to include him. Meanwhile, an excluded child who feels his chest tighten and his heart race might count backward from 10 and identify a friend to start a new game rather than having a meltdown, Vetter says.

Respected programs include the Pear Institute: Partnerships in Education and Resilience at McLean Hospital and the Training and Access Project (TAP) at Boston Children’s Hospital. More than 300 schools nationwide use the Open Circle learning program, based at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Right now, the curriculum is tailored to kindergarten through fifth grade, but this year, due to demand, they’re working on expanding it to middle school.


Classroom teachers implement the curriculum during twice-weekly meetings; kindergartners are taught calm breathing techniques; second-graders do the “wave,” just like at a baseball game, to visualize what cooperation looks like; fourth-graders write down examples of negative self-talk on strips of paper and turn them into positive statements instead.

It works. Research, notably a 2011 landmark study in Child Development, found that communities that use high-quality social and emotional learning programs and practices experience decreased aggression, fewer reports of student depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal.

Lately, the onus has been put on schools to teach these behaviors — behaviors that, in prior generations, may have been left to evolve on the playground, for better or worse. In a modern environment of structured extracurricular activities, some of that rough-and-tumble has evaporated.

“Some natural opportunities have been lost along with the organic nature of play,” says Meagan Burke, a social worker at Arlington’s Dallin Elementary School, which has implemented a proactive social-emotional learning program. Dallin maintains a set of community expectations based on “courage, respect, and responsibility” throughout the school; at recess, students are asked to find ways to include others; at morning arrival, they’re reminded to say hello to other students with a smile.


This structure may seem foreign to today’s parents — children of the 1980s and 1990s, when childhood angst was fodder for John Hughes movies. But the role of schools has changed since then.

“We find ourselves in a position where we’re asked to field conflict here. Schools have become a place where people seek refuge, resources, and respite, where we haven’t been in the past,” says Dallin principal Thad Dingman.

And as schools seek to impart these skills for students, they also find themselves soothing parents. Jenny Loop, an Arlington social worker who teaches social-emotional learning, fielded several e-mails from concerned parents after implementing one such curriculum last year.

“I sat there saying, ‘This is a victory. Kids are hearing the information I’m teaching, making the connection, and reporting it at home. But now the parent has to do work: Is [behavior] one-sided? Is it over and over again? It’s something that I wasn’t prepared for. ‘Bullying’ is a very strong word. There’s a lot of emotion associated with it. So let’s take a deep breath: ‘I’m happy to meet with you, I don’t want to minimize it, but let’s look at these questions and dive in. Is it a conflict, is someone being unkind, or it is actual bullying?’ ”

Today’s parents — some of whom might still nurse their own childhood scars (I’m raising my hand here) — are deeply attuned to their own children’s problems, Thompson says. This is natural. But if we jump in preemptively to solve them, we could also strip our children of crucial developmental milestones.

“It seems wrong not to be in touch with every one of a child’s hurts, and it’s admirable. It’s really admirable and misguided. Because if you know about every one of your child’s hurts, you will want to go to war on behalf of your child — and what most normal children do is stop telling their parents about them,” Thompson says. “Treat your own sense of helplessness, and focus on your child’s resilience.”

Kara Baskin can be reached at