The lesson we all need to learn: Exclusion is bullying

January 19, 2016 — by Vibha Seshadri

Most of us remember scenes like this from elementary school: A young girl sprints toward the playground when the recess bell rings. She is meeting up with a group of her friends huddled around the swings, excited to see them. Yet, the moment she gets there, her friends tighten their circle, blocking her from entering. As she gently taps one on the shoulder, the circle grows smaller. The message is clear: She is unwelcome.

Since kindergarten, most of us have been taught that this type exclusion is also a kind of bullying, that we should talk to those who sit alone and allow those who want to play with us to do so. Since children of this age are still learning what normal social interaction is, this rule helps children develop a more tolerant, accepting personality.

By encouraging inclusion, we can teach them to be more open, tolerant adults. As adults, they will have the freedom to take part in such actions due to their plethora of responsibilities. Yet, they will better understand the extent to which exclusion is unharmful.

Children, however, have much to still discover about themselves. To teach children that exclusion is bullying just like reprimanding a child for saying a curse word or for throwing a temper tantrum. It shapes a child’s beliefs about acceptable, prosocial behavior. If adolescents learn how to interact with many types of people in their social circles, they will be better equipped to engage with others as adults.

If children are not taught that exclusion of the lone child at the lunch table, the new student from China or the student in the wheelchair is a form of bullying, complete exclusion of others is legitimized and will be carried on throughout adulthood. The results of these attitudes over a lifetime may be profound.  

Imagine an incredibly quirky 15-year-old. He’s slightly short, doesn’t partake in small talk, shies away from eye contact, is a physics whiz, but is incredibly kind and honest. In short, he’s not what most consider a “normal 15-year-old.” Nevertheless, it is evident that his underlying personality and genius can plummet him to both monetary and personal success.

Yet for either to happen, he will need support from both his family and his peers. If his peers, however, exclude him by ignoring or outwardly taunting him he may never reach his full potential. Every time he finds an opportunity to put forth his true self, he will remember everything negative that came with doing so, and restrict himself from reaching his potential.

If his peers did not taunt and exclude him, and at the very least seemed interested or supportive of his personality, then this boy would feel comfortable with who he is. He would be unafraid, knowing that people, whether or not they care to spend a lot of time with him, at least care enough to talk to him.

The simple lessons we learn as children remain relevant in our adulthood in multiple ways. Adults who learned that exclusion is bullying would understand that completely ignoring people is wrong. Thus, they would be more tolerant to diversity.

Furthermore, if a child is the object of exclusion, then he may feel more comfortable telling an adult since he recognizes  that he is being bullied. This allows those who were excluded as children to understand that even if it is not considered bullying in adulthood, it is not something to passively accept and condone. Labeling exclusion as bullying allows those who were excluded to be proactive about their situation and realize that the exclusion isn’t their fault.

The “exclusion is bullying” rule may seem to only apply to elementary school students, yet if we look back at our childhood, we will realize that this “rule” was a piece of what made us stronger and kinder individuals.