My husband plays in our church’s softball league, and my sons and I recently attended a doubleheader. Upon arriving, the children all ran off to the playground and quickly organized a game resembling one part freeze tag, one part kickball, and one part chaos. Late-night screeching and giggling filled the summer air. It wasn’t until we were driving home that I heard about the “naughty boy.”

Apparently, a young boy had refused to follow the agreed upon rules. My son Michael explained that when he gave the troublemaker an ultimatum of playing the right way or not playing at all, the child became agitated, grabbing my son’s shirt with both hands and threatening to tell on him for not being fair. Michael forcefully removed the younger boy’s hands and told him in no uncertain terms that if he tried to touch him again, he would be leaving the playground with a bloody nose.

The younger boy relented, got with the program, and the children’s evening concluded joyfully. When I was growing up, this is how almost all of our playground disputes were resolved. But a few days after this event, I was told by an acquaintance who’d heard of the “incident” that my son should be reprimanded for bullying. Times certainly have changed on the playground. And we adults—and the anti-bullying campaigns we’ve designed—may be to blame.

The Crisis du Jour

Most anti-bullying programs, both Christian and secular, seem to operate from a “turn the other cheek” perspective. Popular platitudes like, “Be nice to everyone,” “Let’s all get along,” and, “I’m okay, you’re okay,” are the norm, while action plans usually boil down to, “If you can’t (or don’t want to) solve the problem on your own, tell an adult right away.”

From feel-good group hugs to school assemblies facilitated by experts to church youth groups declaring their meeting halls a “friendship zone,” bullying has become the youth crisis du jour. Like the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaigns of the 1980s, experts have sought to solve character issues with catchy slogans that hardly scratch the surface of a very real problem. Perhaps the biggest mistake here is the mischaracterization of bullying.

Yes, bullying is a very real problem in our communities. However, being bullied is not the same as feeling uncomfortable, nor is it the same as someone not getting his way. Instead of addressing bullying as a distinct behavioral problem—relentless, focused, intimidating behavior toward a specific target—we have tried to insulate children from any and all negative social interactions. By interceding at every conflict, or demanding recompense soon after, we are denying our children an integral piece of healthy development.

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Facing Life’s Hardships

Hardship is an unavoidable part of life. If we continue to protect our children from learning how to navigate a minor playground skirmish, how in the world can we expect them to handle criticism in the classroom, and later, in the boardroom? More importantly, if we do not give them the opportunity to stand up for what is right when they are children (in this case, the integrity of agreed upon rules), then how can we expect them to stand up for morality, dignity, purity, and biblical practices when popular culture taunts and tempts them?

The Bible tell us that “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). As Christ-followers, we were not created to be timid, fearful, or lacking in confidence—yet we often are. If the Holy Spirit equips us with the power to fulfill the Creator’s plans, why do so many of us feel wounded when we’re called a name, passed over for a promotion, or picked last for the team?

Bullying certainly is a serious problem, but let’s not use that term as an umbrella for every minor conflict our children encounter.

Unfortunately, the anti-bullying movement has brainwashed us into thinking that we (and our children) deserve to feel completely safe, secure, and “liked” all the time. Nowadays, if anyone does anything to ruffle our feathers, we peg them as a bully. Yes, there are people with different opinions who are annoying, difficult, insensitive, socially inept, problematic, and disruptive. Not everyone is going to like us, nor will we like them all of the time. That does not make them—or us—bullies. Thanks to the Spirit God gave us, we can have power in the face of adversity. We can choose to show love and self-control.

Bullying or Conflict?

My son Michael, along with the other children on the playground that evening, became frustrated at one person’s uncooperative behavior. Instead of just giving the child the ball when it wasn’t his turn or cowering to his threats, Michael stood up for what was right. Even when this child put his hands on my son, Michael was able to defend himself without backing down or using excessive force.

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Michael handled the conflict well, but I was most impressed by his interpretation of why the conflict happened in the first place: “It was getting late, Mom, and you know how little kids are when they stay up too late. He was probably just cranky. I used to be like that when I was little, so I just told him what the rules were and then let him play. It was a really fun night, let’s go to Dad’s games all the time.”

My nine-year-old son was not a bully that night, nor was he bullied. As parents, we focus on teaching our children strong biblical values, encourage them to seek Jesus’ counsel and wisdom, and expect them to conduct themselves as Christ-followers. They need not be wallflowers or tyrants to achieve that. It is possible to be both firm and fair, to be both confident and compassionate. Bullying certainly is a serious problem, but let’s not use that term as an umbrella for every minor conflict our children encounter. We all know that into each life some rain must fall. What we need to focus on now is the difference between drowning and getting a little wet.