Bullying, A Serious Business

Why Do Kids Bully?

While there are all too many ways to bully -- name-calling, hitting, extorting money, and spreading nasty rumors are just a few -- the motivation is always the same. Bullies deliberately set out to hurt someone, physically or psychologically, who is less powerful than they are: smaller, weaker, lower on the social totem pole. Children can't truly be considered bullies until they're 4 or 5, many researchers believe. "Before that age, most children haven't developed the mental complexity of wanting to cause pain to others," says Peter Randall, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at the University of Hull in England and an expert on bullying. "A 2-year-old may get angry and kick or punch, but it's impulsive behavior."

Still, even by 2 or 3, some children are noticeably more aggressive. This can signal a bully in the making "unless the aggression is curbed and reframed," says Dr. Randall, who stresses that bullying is learned, not inborn, behavior. Aggression in children turns into bullying only if it is inadvertently rewarded. "Kids realize, 'I can get this toy away from so-and-so, she'll cry, and I get to play with the toy,'" explains Ronald G. Slaby, Ph.D., a lecturer on education and pediatrics at Harvard University. "If anything, the teacher might lecture you, which means you get attention. So the behavior pays off."

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