It is essential to distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying so that teachers, school staff, parents, and students all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene. Is also important to establish that bullying is a serious issue that must be addressed, but we must accurately identify actual bullying incidents so that appropriate action can be taken. There is a real need to draw a distinction between behavior that is rude, behavior that is mean, and behavior that is characteristic of bullying.

Rude= Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else.

From kids, rudeness might look like burping in someone’s face, jumping ahead in line, bragging about getting the highest grade or throwing leaves in someone’s face at recess. On their own, any of these behaviors could appear as elements of bullying, but when looked at in context, incidents of rudeness are usually spontaneous, based on thoughtlessness, poor manner or narcissism, but not meant actually to hurt someone.

Mean= Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice).

Mean behavior very much aims to hurt or depreciate someone. Kids are mean to each other when they criticize clothing, appearance, intelligence, coolness, or just about anything else they can find to denigrate. Mean behaviors can wound deeply, and adults can make a huge difference in the lives of young people when they hold kids accountable for being mean. Meanness is different from bullying in essential ways that must be understood and differentiated when it comes to intervention.

Bullying= Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power.

Experts agree that bullying entails three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance, and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Bullying may be physical, verbal, and relational or carried out via technology. Kids who bully say or do something intentionally hurtful to others and keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse—even when targets of bullying show or express their hurt or tell the aggressors to stop.

So, why is it important to make the distinction between rude, mean, and bullying? In the last few years, we have paid attention to the issue of bullying like never before. We have been focused on strategies to keep kids safe and dignified in schools and communities; this is a significant achievement. If we continue to classify rudeness and mean behavior as bullying improperly, we all run the risk of not identifying actual bullying incidents and intervening immediately. The result: as quickly as the issue rose to prominence, it will soon lose its urgency.