My children love to come to me telling me so and so (often a sibling) is being mean. I try to get them to explain what actually happened and I have tried to take mean out of their vocabulary because it does not seem to me that they are using the word properly.

In today's world of bullying (at least in the literature) and concentration on being kind what does "mean" really mean? When is someone actually being "mean"? How do we teach our children what "mean" means so that it means something when they say it?

  • the way I read it, you want your children to be more specific in their complains when they come to you. Is that correct? Could you rephrase to emphasize your goal please? Jan 12 '12 at 14:12
  • @TorbenGundtofte-Bruun No, I get them to be more specific. I am truly interested in the definition of the word as it pertains to child interactions. Jan 12 '12 at 15:05
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    If you're looking for definitions and interpretations of words of the English language, then I suggest you ask it here instead: english.stackexchange.com Jan 12 '12 at 15:19
  • @TorbenGundtofte-Bruun I am specifically asking in relationship to children. I will add how do we define Bullying, which is a related question if that will make it a better question for you. Jan 12 '12 at 16:04
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    As per our faq we don't accept generic questions that simply end in "...for kids", but if you feel the need to discuss underlying definitions for use on this site, then such issues need to be raised on our [meta] site -- the Q&A site about this Q&A site. Jan 12 '12 at 16:10

Your approach is a sensible one. "Mean" is a meaningless (pun intended) word, particularly in the context of parenting.

"Mean" is in the eye of the beholder. All the child is really saying is that they don't like how the person is treating them or others. Sometimes the only "wrong" thing the other child is doing is not doing what your child wants!

You need to encourage your child to express more specific information about the actual behaviors or actions, and then coach the child how to respond.

Kid: "Mom, Jimmy is being mean to me."
Mom: "OK. What is Jimmy doing that is mean?"
Kid: .....
Mom: "OK. If Jimmy does ..... again you need to ......" or some other appropriate response.

On the flip side, we didn't tell our daughter "don't be mean", because it is vague and non-specific. We told her to treat others how she wants to be treated. When we observed her treating others poorly, we told her specifically why her action was not OK.


Mean is often in the perception of the child and is a general term often illdefined.. You didn't mention the ages of your children which would be relevent to my response. I think it is important for kids to be able to distinguish serious from minor incidences. The language I used to teach young school aged kids is dangerous and/or destructive (to include feelings as well as body and things). If the action is dangerous or destructive, it should be shared with mom. If not, perhaps the child can try to handle it. This is the beginning of helping kids know when to "tattle" and when to handle the problem.So mean would be destructive to a persons' feelings, things or body. This comes from a program which teaches social skills to ages 4-10. It takes some practice but it has been very useful to parents, teachers and others working with children

  • +1 for dangerous and/or destructive, that seems like a very good distinction.
    – Josh
    Jan 16 '12 at 13:08

I've just looked at common definitions in dictionaries, and I don't want to be rude but to me the definitions seem clear and fitting. I see no need to further refine these definitions for the context of parenting.

mean adj.


  • offensive, selfish, or unaccommodating; nasty; malicious: a mean remark;
    He gets mean when he doesn't get his way. (Dictionary.com)

So, people are "mean" when they act this way. That seems easy enough to describe.

bully noun

  • a blustering, quarrelsome, overbearing person who habitually badgers and intimidates smaller or weaker people. (Dictionary.com)

There is, by the way, a website specifically made regarding bullying which also describes why some people are bullies: http://olweus.org/public/bullying.page

  • I don't see how these apply to children per se, they do define the words, which we can all look up, but in today's world these do not seem to be the definitions used by parents, teachers, or culture. That is the question I am asking, sorry I was unclear. Jan 12 '12 at 19:18
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    @morahhochman: Then I don't understand what you're really after. If you say that words are being used differently than what their official definitions are, then I would not understand people using those words. To me, the words mean what they always did. Feel free to edit your question if it helps. Jan 12 '12 at 19:22

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