An editor and journalist with a law background, Emily Bazelon's intense examination of what bullying is today began with a series on cyberbullying in...moreAn editor and journalist with a law background, Emily Bazelon's intense examination of what bullying is today began with a series on cyberbullying in the online magazine, Slate, and culminated in a highly contentious article called "What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince?" - much of which is explored again in this book.
Bazelon has taken a refreshing, level-headed approach to a subject that in recent years, thanks to the internet and social media in particular, has become sensationalised to the point where we're throwing the word "bully" around with abandon, but without really understanding what it is anymore. The playing field, so to speak, has broadened and become more complex, and there's a definite need to reassess the terms and conditions if we're to understand what kids are enduring, or inflicting on each other, today. Thanks to the media and its ability to bring stories of bullied kids "on our computer screens and phones for all to see" [p.8], we're all taking a keener interest in what's going on, especially because of the cases of teen suicide where the deceased had been a victim of harassment or bullying.
However Bazelon isn't interested in sensationalising the stories of bullying or teen suicide; the opposite, in fact, is true. In order to be clear about what constitutes actual bullying, it must be defined, and its definition must be adhered to, because the effort to reduce bullying has sometimes negatively impacted kids, in terms of reducing the space they need to develop, mature and learn how to cope with conflict, adversity, clashing personalities and so on.
Doing this right ... means recognizing that there is truth in the old sticks-and-stones chant: most kids do bounce back from cruelty at the hands of other kids. They'll remember being bullied or being a bully; they'll also learn something useful, if painful. "Children need to encounter some adversity while growing up," says Elizabeth Englander, a psychologist who is the guru of bullying prevention in Massachusetts. "Even though it's normal for adults to want to protect them from all meanness, or to rush to their defense, there's a reason why Mother Nature has promoted the existence of run-of-the-mill social cruelty between children. It's how children get the practice they need to copy successfully with the world as adults." [p.11]
It was hard to read that so many of the negative experiences I had as a child in primary school and high school weren't actual bullying, but just "run-of-the-mill social cruelty" - it somehow diminishes, if not dismisses, the impact this had on me. I was very much like Monique McClain, the first of three case studies Bazelon presents as context for discussing the topic of bullying in its many facets: sensitive, not aggressive, not very assertive or confident, and also insecure, shy, easily intimidated and hugely hesitant. When I put it like that, it's a wonder I wasn't bullied more (I may have been all of the above, but I was also a nice kid, friendly with a sunny disposition, and many other positive adjectives - the only real bullying I received in primary school, under the definition presented in this book, concerned my weight, for which kids occasionally teased me from Kindergarten right through to grade 6, but for which my only real suffering was the suffering I inflicted on myself - hence the insecurity and lack of confidence which I spent years working on eradicating).
It's not an easy task for Bazelon to have taken on: no one who has been on the receiving end of unwanted "drama", as kids call it these days, or who has watched their kids endure it, wants to hear that it's not "real" bullying and that they need to find ways of coping and handling it that are more constructive and confidence-building. As the case of Monique showed, it didn't matter that the kids at her school just thought they were involving Monique in their drama; Monique felt she was being bullied and soon it became a fight between her mother and grandmother, and the school principle and school council, being waged at meetings and in local newspapers. None of that really helped Monique, even though that was the aim.
The old problem was that adults were too prone to look the other way when powerful kids turned on weaker ones. This, of course, still happens, but we also have a new trap to watch out for: being too quick to slap the label of bully onto some kids and the label of victim onto others. It's a kind of crying wolf, and it does damage. For one thing, calling every mean comment or hallway clash bullying breeds cynicism and sucks precious resources from the kids who need our help. For another, it turns a manageable problem into an overwhelming one. [p.298]
What Bazelon aims to do is, partly, to show that our (the adults) reactions to what our kids experience at school and online, can sometimes make things worse. She also aims to show that it's important to distinguish between "drama" and bullying because one is "run-of-the-mill social cruelty" and the other can have serious impacts on the health, safety and mental well-being of the victim of bullying. Yet she also argues that bullying alone doesn't lead to teen suicide, that it can play a part but that there are other factors at play, especially mental illness - namely, depression. This is what has earned Bazelon her strongest detractors, because it has been interpreted as "blaming the victim". Yet the way Bazelon explains it, using the case study of Phoebe Prince and "the South Hadley Six" who were charged with causing her death-by-suicide, it does seem clear that it's a much bigger issue than bullying alone can account for, and that the media's sensationalism of "bullycide" (bullying someone until they're driven to suicide) not only misrepresents the issue but may have serious negative effects on our ability to tackle the problem.
The third case study is that of Jacob Lasher, a boy who figured out he was gay when he was eleven, and later decided to come out in a flamboyant way - at a school in the town of Mohawk, New York, "a place that feels more Midwest than East Coast, and a little slow-moving", where nearly all the students are white and the "climate was less forgiving" of anything not "normal" [pp.58-9]. Jacob first experienced "low-level harassment" and ended up being bullied repeatedly, often violently. Many, including the parents of his most persistent bully, Aaron, saw Jacob as the guilty one, the one who provokes others and harasses them to the point where they fight back. The school principal was unsympathetic, and Jacob eventually approached a legal aid group who encouraged him to take the school to court.
Using the three case studies of Monique, Jacob and Phoebe, Bazelon provides not only three very different scenarios for context, but also avenues through which to discuss the broader issues. She delves into studies that have been conducted around the world, current research and statistics, interviews psychologists as well as the victims of bullying and bullies, and explores why people bully others, as well as some of the effective solutions that schools are having success with today. As a child, I figured out for myself that some kids bully for power, and others out of insecurity and a need for power. It's a simplistic picture but it gave me not only some comfort, but also an explanation that defused the impact of their words and behaviour on my own psyche: words and actions affected me less because I saw them not as real critiques on my character or appearance etc., but as reflections of their own insecurities and an attempt to look strong to hide those insecurities from others. Understanding this made a big difference, and I think openly discussing this aspect of bullying with young children definitely helps. It helps not only the weaker sort, but also those who may become bullies of one kind or another; it helps build empathy, and also self-awareness.
And those are the ideas I'd like to leave you with: character and empathy. Most of the time, the old adage that adversity makes us stronger does hold true. We have to watch out for the kids whose internal makeup means they are the exceptions, but we also have to give the majority of teenagers the space to prove the rule. We have to be there for them, ad we have to stand aside. We have to know when to swoop in and save them, and when they have to learn to save themselves. And we have to make tricky decisions about the gray area in between those two poles.
We also have to instill in kids the paramount value of kindness - to show them that it's more important to come together than to finish first, that other people's feelings can take precedence over one's own, that relationships can matter more than tasks.
These are tall mountains to climb - don't I know it. These days, we have to make decisions about how much freedom to give our kids on two planes: the physical and the virtual. I sometimes fear that parents go too far in confining kids' real-world exploration - and then do little or nothing to track their travels online. And so kids strike out on their own where they can, including on their phones and on the Internet. [p.305]
With an entire chapter on the inner workings of Facebook - a secretive realm where Bazelon was granted unprecedented access - we can learn a lot about how social media works, and how kids are using it. For it's true: bullying is an old problem in a new world. The stakes seem so much higher because of the connection the media has loudly made between bullying and suicide, but perhaps we should instead say that the stakes seem so much higher simply because the audience is so much larger: a humiliating, mean message is posted to Facebook and potentially thousands of people can read it, as opposed to the one or two eye-witnesses of an attack on school property. It has also changed the scope because now, so much bullying - or an extension of it - happens online, outside school property and the ability of schools to do anything about it. Still, as Bazelon shows, the onus is placed on schools to "fix" the problem (and then not provided any funding to do it). This book has a clear American focus, and she's talking about American schools, but still the problem is a broader one. I appreciated that Bazelon takes the time to point to parents too, as people who should be responsible for the behaviour of their kids.
Several years ago I read Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, which also talked about girls learning gossipy, judgemental behaviour from listening to how their parents talk. It's a simple, straight-forward truism for the majority of us. Watching my own two-year-old grow and develop, it's blatantly apparent how much he learns from me and his father. If we want him to be polite and friendly and cooperative etc., we have to show him what that looks like. There's not much use in telling your kid: "Be polite!" but never demonstrate politeness (or to demonstrate the opposite). Just yesterday, in the playground, my husband witnessed a case in point: a little boy, perhaps four years old, made a rude declaration about our toddler while standing behind him on the slide. The mother was embarrassed and apologetic to my husband, saying her boy was going through a bit of a phase. She then took him in hand and proceeded to shout at him, yelling things like "You will NOT do that again, do you hear me?" and so on. Now, obviously I don't know these people or what they're going through in their own lives, but bullying your kid to not be a bully is never an affective method of teaching your child anything. It's right up there with using violence to "teach them a lesson" and be good, obedient (read: scared shitless) kids (Michael and Debi Pearl make me so unbelievably angry I can't even begin to express it).
With Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon has rather bravely taken on a very complex issue, one that I had always assumed was fairly black-and-white. I learned a lot from this book, which raises just as many questions for an ongoing dialogue as it answers - because there isn't a simple easy fix. This book is not the beginning and end of an understanding of the subject, but one instalment in an ongoing body of research - one that deftly and comprehensively brings together and makes accessible a vast body of research and opinion. Bazelon has an incredibly effortless writing style that is highly readable, and the way she has structured the book as a whole works exceedingly well in making it readable. The depth of research and the complexity of it all - Bazelon juggles it smoothly and manages to cover so much without tripping over herself, never losing the reader or overwhelming them with too much at once. Not only is the writing clear and clean and easy to read, but it has the added layer of emotional depth. Much of this book will have you tied up in knots, intellectually and emotionally. There was a part that made me cry, and many others that made me weep inside. There were times when I felt such furious rage, and such a strong protective surge, that it made me feel like I was right there, experiencing what these kids experienced. That's empathy, and compassion, and the fact that I've had some experience with being on the receiving end and it did make me stronger, and build character, aids in that understanding which I brought to my reading of this book.
I can see why some find Bazelon's arguments contentious, or controversial. It stems from that same uncertainty and self-doubt that resides in us when we are new parents and many, not all, seek out some kind of guidebook that clearly lays out the rules, the steps, the formula, the method for looking after a baby, that same distrust not just in our own instincts but in others' ability to understand the needs of our child (and yet trust a book!). Bazelon, as the quote above shows, has trust in us adults and parents to be able to distinguish between real bullying and schoolground drama, to know when to step in and when to be quietly supportive, when to take it to the next level and when to give kids the space to work it out for themselves. And that scares the crap out of people. Not only do parents and teachers etc. feel doubt in their own abilities to do this, but we have a general lack of trust in the abilities of others to do so too - something we learn from experience, and the many examples of being let down.
It reminds me of the first time I took a First Aid/CPR course, and the instructor talked about how many times people don't go to the aid of someone having a heart attack etc., because they're terrified they'll do something wrong and make it worse, because they're not 100% sure of what to do, on an intellectual level. The existence of religions and religious texts like the Bible show us that, as a species, we humans yearn or feel a need for a guidebook to life in general, to be told in simple steps how to live, what to do, how to punish others. Bazelon's book is certainly no guide, not in that sense. But it is educational, and it is a guide in a broader sense (and in a practical one: the chapter on solutions offers real world examples of schools that have produced positive results in their methods of tackling bullying); one that expects you the reader to meet it halfway, bringing with you your own experiences, education, intellect, ability to think and reason and of course your empathy. It is a book that not only educates you on the topic through excellent investigative journalism, but expands your own thinking on it, your own understanding and opinions. You might not agree with everything Bazelon says, or the perspective she takes, but it is always worth hearing other sides to a story - because every story has two sides, even if we don't like one of them. As a parent and an educator, Sticks and Stones provided me with much food for thought, a great deal of insight and a wealth of fine detail into a very complex issue that is perhaps more relevant today than it's ever been before. (less)