Person First Language: Bullies and Victims

People First Language Operation RespectI said in an earlier blog post that I freely admit to being a vocabulary geek. I believe words matter and they especially matter when they come from adults toward and about children. In many ways this is particularly true when we speak about bullying.

Many anti-bullying programs identify participants by roles. They specifically refer to bullies, targets or victims. They use the terms as nouns, as in, “That bully finds victims wherever she goes.”

At Operation Respect, we believe in using what is called “people first language.” Frequently, people first language is associated with treating someone who has a disability with respect by recognizing that he or she is a person first, more similar to those who do not share the disability than different, and not defined by that disability. (Perhaps in another post we will discuss all the ways our school-based shorthand often fails to do this – “Our special needs kids; the ELL/ESOL class; that LGBTQ group…” – as if the description is the most important characteristic of their lives.)

When it comes to describing bullying situations, it is particularly important that we use people first language so that we don’t suggest in any way that the person who has done the bullying cannot change or is defined completely by that behavior anymore than the person who has been bullied. If we, instead, refer to children who bully as bullies, whether to other children, adults, or even to ourselves, we

  • Send the message that the child’s behavior cannot change;
  • Fail to recognize the multiple roles children might play in different bullying situations;
  • Disregard other factors contributing to the behavior such as peer influence or school climate.

It’s easy to resort to labels especially when we, ourselves, are upset about the situation, but our language will set the tone for what happens next and will serve as the first step toward creating a community of forgiveness and peace.


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