We would like to share with you this post from Mama Eve.

This weekend I read a post on a parenting forum from a mother who was concerned about her son.

The 6 year-old came home from school with a scrape on his forehead. He said he was bending down, tying his shoe, and some older kids ran by and “whacked” him on the head hard enough that he fell forward and had to be treated by the school nurse. The mother was upset she hadn’t been notified by the school, and wanted to know how she should handle the entire situation, including talking to her son.

The almost unanimous reaction? “This is bullying, and you need to sit down with the principle and straighten this out so they protect your son!”

I have to respectfully disagree.

Labeling an isolated incident as “bullying” without first getting more information, and then going straight to the highest authority figures without bringing the child into the discussion at all sets up a victim culture that encourages bullying — not prevents it.

When I first read the mother’s post, I had a lot of questions. Was this the first time her son mentioned trouble with the older boys? Were they people he interacted with? What were the circumstances (was it in the middle of recess, or were there a bunch of kids rushing by because it was time to go inside)? Was it possible this was an accident, or did her son feel like it was malicious? Did her son tell the teacher what happened? Why or why not? How did her son normally interact with other children? Has he had trouble making friends or been feeling isolated?

To me, not being notified by the school of a potential altercation could be troubling, but without more information, it’s hard to tell if the school was remiss or not. Regardless, having a parent march to the head of a school and demand action takes power and authority away from the child at a time when they might need it most.

Bullies pick on children who are smaller, weaker, and less able to defend themselves. By swooping in and taking over the entire situation (especially as it’s emerging), we can perpetuate the roles of “victim” and “bully” and leave our children even more vulnerable.

What’s difficult as a parent is to understand when there is an actual problem, and what are immature incidents of children trying to figure out social interactions and their places as individuals. Obviously, we don’t want to dismiss situations of true bullying, where a child is being picked on, but we also don’t want to blow smaller altercations out of proportion.

The only way to distinguish between the two is to have a connection with your child.

This is the only way to know if your child is adjusting well to social situations. It’s the only way to know how they handle disagreements. It’s the only way to know how they problem-solve and if they’re comfortable standing up for themselves.

If they are running into situations where they are being picked on, they need to be empowered to protect themselves. Any discussion about a potential bullying incident needs to include what a child can do for themselves, and also a hard look at what we as parents are doing to empower our children. This isn’t about blaming the victim — it’s never ok for one child to pick on another, but especially in the cases of young children, it’s rarely so clear-cut for one child to simply be a “bad apple” with evil intentions.

This post from Aunt Annie’s Childcare includes a detailed description of a letter a child (not the parent) should write to her school if she feels she is being picked on, and then ends with a section on what parents can do to instill confidence in their children. It raises a thought-provoking question: what about the way I treat my child makes them vulnerable to becoming a victim when they’re away from me?

Am I instilling confidence in my children? Are they comfortable finding their own solutions to problems, or have they been conditioned for someone else to solve their problems for them? Are they loved and accepted for who they are at home? Are they given enough freedom to be comfortable in their own skin, but enough supervision to know they won’t fall through the cracks?

Bullying is a troubling trend these days, but it’s also a catch-phrase for any altercation between children. It’s easy to blame a problem on someone else’s bad behavior, but we all have bad days and all have times when we act out in ways we shouldn’t (when was the last time you shouted at someone who cut you off on the road? Mine was probably last week). That doesn’t make every incident of bad behavior bullying, and it certainly shouldn’t make every time someone is at the receiving end of it a victim.

If we hurry to assign blame and demand punishment for every negative interaction without taking the time to look at ourselves, we give our power away. If we want to eliminate bullying and protect our children, we have to start with giving them confidence instead of perpetuating their role as victim.