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May 22, 2008

Pediatric Points: Denouncing bullying from the bully pulpit

The term bully pulpit was coined by Theodore Roosevelt. He used it to refer to the presidency as a platform from which to advocate an important agenda or idea. Bully in those days was a positive term meaning good or superior. We sometimes use it in this way today, albeit sarcastically, as when we say, "Bully for you."

Well, I may not be the president, but I would like to use my humble platform in the form of this column to make a serious plea for awareness and intervention when it comes to bullying in our community.

In my office, I hear from both sides of the sandbox. I often have parents in tears because their child is picked on mercilessly at school. I also have parents, one just this morning in fact, who are having their play dates cancelled because their children are the ones doing the bullying. Each position is painful for parents and each poses special challenges for pediatricians, teachers and society as a whole.

Bullying is aggression. We are familiar with overt kinds of bullying such as pushing kids around on the play yard and the verbal taunting and teasing of children. But bullying also includes things like socially ostracizing kids or starting rumors about them. And nowadays there is even something called cyberbullying, which involves the electronic texting of hateful messages or rumors about people, or posting material that is cruel on blogs or Web sites. Cyberbullying may be unique in that it can be anonymous.

Key aspects of bullying are that it occurs over time and that it involves an imbalanced relationship in which the victim is seen as weaker than the bully by virtue of size, age or social position.

Although bullying can occur anywhere, it tends to occur most frequently during school hours and at times and places that are typically not as well supervised as the classroom. Hallways, play yards and busses are prime sites, and lunch and recess prime occasions for bullying.

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