What's Happening in Character?

Words Do Matter!

Posted by SuEllen Fried on Thu, Oct 6, 2016 @ 11:10 AM

Over the years my bullying language has evolved and I’m grateful to the students, educators and parents who have helped me rethink my vocabulary. To begin with, my first book on bullying was written in 1996, three years before Columbine. The title was “Bullies and Victims, Helping Your Child Through the Schoolyard Battlefield” But, today I would never use those words!


Twenty years ago, my daughter and co-author, Paula Fried, PhD and I staked out the topic of bullying for a book. Paula and I came up with the title - Bullies and Victims - and the publisher came up with the sub-title - Helping Your Child Through the Schoolyard Battlefield. Today we would never use that language. Now I never use the term -bully- as a noun, only as a verb.  Verbal bullying includes “name-calling” and “labeling.” Identifying children as “bullies” is a form of verbal bullying, the very thing we were trying to eradicate. Now, I refer to those children who engage in bullying behavior as “bulliers,” describing their actions rather than their whole being.

A Shift from "Victims"

Discarding the word “victims” came from the domestic violence-movement that was surfacing in the late 90s. “Survivors” had become the word of choice, replacing the stigma of helplessness. I kept asking students to help me come up with a more empowering term than “victims.” One thoughtful student suggested the term “ducks” because a teacher had told her that “If you walk like a duck, talk like a duck and act like a duck, you’re gonna be a duck.” The student said that some students walked like victims, talked like victims and acted like victims, and they were going to BE victims. That awesome observation prompted me to include illustrations of body language, phrases and responses that would show strength rather than vulnerability when I work with students in classrooms.   

Expanding the Limits

Another part of the title, “Schoolyard Battlefield,” is limiting – not that the playground isn’t a minefield of cruelty – but there are so many other treacherous settings - buses, bathrooms, cafeterias, hallways, locker rooms, etc.

Targets & Witnesses

The title of our second book, “Bullies, Targets and Witnesses – Helping Children Break the Pain Chain," published in 2003 made some significant strides. Students agree with me that “target” is more empowering because they understand that an arrow that is released from the bow may miss the mark or even be deflected. 

My favorite replacement word is “witness.”  “Bystander” is the term used most frequently in the literature, but I find it to be very passive. It doesn’t require responsibility. Students watch the TV Law Shows and they define “witness” as someone who sees what happens and has to tell the truth. Now there’s a powerful word!

Rethinking Abuse

Probably my most important change is using the term “peer abuse” as a synonym for bullying. The first question I ask children is: “How many of you have ever heard of child abuse?” All the hands go up and they give me terrific definitions, some verging on the legal terminology.  I explain to them that it wasn’t until the 1970s that the two words – child abuse – came together in the English language.  Every state passed a law against child abuse during that decade, but the abuser is only defined as an adult.  My concern is that if a child is hurting, it doesn’t matter if the abuser is a parent or a peer; if a child is suffering, it doesn’t matter if the abuser is 36 or 10 – no child deserves to be abused by anyone! Peer abuse happens when a bullier intentionally causes harm for a target, but a witness can make a life-changing difference.

Because words matter so much, my most recent book is entitled "Banishing Bullying Behavior, Transforming the Culture of Peer Abuse," co-authored with Blanche Sosland, PhD. Words Do Matter!

SuEllen Fried served as Chairman of Prevent Child Abuse America 1980-82 and continues to serve as Life Board member. Fried has co-authored three books on bullying - "Bullies and Victims," co-author, Paula Fried, PHD, 1996; "Bullies, Targets & Witnesses" co-author, Paula Fried, PhD, 2003; "Banishing Bullying Behavior," co-author, Blanche Sosland, PhD., second edition, 2011. She founded BullySafeUSA in 2002 and has worked with over 75,000 students educators, parents, administrators and professionals in 36 states. 

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