Focus on the Behavior, not the Label

By: Gordon Beinstein

Every year, we present information to your children regarding bullying…what it is, what it is not, and what to do if you find yourself uncomfortable either as a ‘victim’ or a ‘bystander’. While these lessons are important, I can’t help but feel that, despite our best intentions, we might be missing an opportunity.

The middle school years are difficult for your children. They are, simultaneously, ultra-sensitive and extremely self-centered. They struggle to recognize the impact of their actions on their peers which is a toxic combination when it comes to processing the comments and behaviors of others, and themselves. Or to quote a tweet recently forwarded to me by my oldest son, ‘middle schoolers are terrifying because they haven’t even discovered empathy yet…just a bunch of psychopaths struggling to learn long division’ (psychopaths might be a bit strong, but you get the idea). Middle school children, as you know better than most, do not always make the best decisions. They act before they think, if they think at all! While there are, of course, exceptions, our students aren’t typically filed with malicious intent. Are they thoughtless? Often! Do the lack empathy? Occasionally. Can they make mind numbing comments and decisions? Every day!

I suspect that if I asked you if your child was a bully or ever ‘bullied’ someone, you would likely say no (excluding younger siblings, of course). However, very few of you would push back if I suggested that your child was occasionally thoughtless or unaware of the impact of his/her words and actions. By focusing on labeling a child a ‘bully’ or a ‘victim’, we miss the opportunity to educate and really change behaviors. The focus should be on the act itself and its impact on others rather than on a label. It is our responsibility to help the child to understand that, while he might have thought the ‘yo mama’ joke was funny, it could be hurtful, or that voting someone off the table at lunch might be emotionally damaging. My experience is that MOST of the time, when given the opportunity to process and see through the eyes of the other parties, we do have a positive impact and the behaviors cease. These unfortunate comments and behaviors can become powerful teachable moments.

I would ask that you continue to encourage your children to report behaviors that make them uncomfortable and I ask the same of you. I would also ask that when reporting out, you describe the behavior rather than label it or the child perpetrating it. And remember, as with all things middle school, this too shall pass.

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