A Must Read: Emily Bazelon’s “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy”

Well, I am at a point in which I’ve got so many ideas, but not enough time to post anything.  Until, that is, I spotted in my Facebook news feed this morning the New York Times article by John Schwartz titled “Words That Hurt and Kill: Lessons for Society From Bullying and Its Psychic Toll” about Emily Bazelon’s book titled “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.”

As the title of this book suggests, the author touches on bullying–a far-from-new-phenomenon–and the importance of empathy,  defeating the culture of bullying by acknowledging its complexity, and encouraging bystanders to be upstanders (those who stand up for victims).  Laws alone will NOT prevent bullying from occurring.  I hear all the time the lament that “Well, I don’t understand why everyone is making a big deal out of bullying.  Bullying has been around forever.  I grew up with bullying.  My parents grew up with bullying.  Back then, we just dealt with it.  Nowadays, kids don’t seem to want or know how to deal with it.  Instead, they’re copping out by killing themselves.”

Well, as I’ve mentioned in prior posts, don’t forget that we are now in the age of social media.  Back when I was a kid, there was NO social media.   Heck, there weren’t even cell phones.  With text messaging, Youtube videos, Facebook, Twitter, and a whole host of sites you don’t even want to know about but are popular among teens, the impact of bullying can be extremely devastating to a young person who hasn’t mastered coping, self care and real-world survival skills, may be lacking in self esteem,  and may not get much in the way of support and encouragement from family members and friends.  The bar has been raised in terms of the extent of cruelty that individuals are capable of carrying out because these are no longer face to face confrontations.  Take, for example, trolls.  We have all witnessed at least one troll in action in our interactions online.  Usually, it’s in the form of a nonsensical and completely outrageous and completely off-tangent remark that is filled with hate.  You wouldn’t normally see these comments spoken to someone in person, right?    Yes, it’s so much easier to be cruel online than it is in person.

In terms of the in-person bullying, the isolation tactics and backstabbing of cliquey girls, the racist remarks, the physical intimidation tactics, the verbal intimidation tactics….these still occur in school.  If schools and home life are anything like what I experienced back when I was a teenager–i.e., lack of school counselor support and awareness on the part of school staff, lack of support at home, lack of upstanders, lack of empathy–these behaviors (with or without the social media) can result in a very detrimental experience for the bullied child.  I believe depression rates are higher now than they’ve ever been before.  Maybe because more people are speaking up about their experiences and with the aid of social media, news and information on bullying incidents are much more accessible to everyone than ever before, there is the perception that depression rates are higher.  At the same time, access to mental healthcare services in this country is still so sadly lacking.  And then you have the extreme situations, like Columbine and Virginia Tech, in which the bullied exact their revenge.  I don’t remember incidents like those growing up.  Nope, I don’t.

Ms. Bazelon touches on some points that I have previously touched upon:

  • Some individuals are more resilient (via a combination of genetics and environmental factors) and will tend to come out of bullying and cyberbullying incidents much less scathed than those who are more susceptible to depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.  It would be nice if we can figure out just which students fall into each bucket to increase the likelihood of preventing situations from developing and/or getting out of hand.
  • It was only in the past decade that states put the first anti-bullying laws in place, in the aftermath of Columbine, Phoebe Prince’s bullycide (MA), Tyler Clementi’s bullycide (NJ).
  • There seems to be a tendency to label non-bullying behaviors as bullying.  In other words, people are using the word “bullying” so much that this overuse is diluting true acts of bullying.  We need to stop overusing the word because it is not helping matters.

Ms. Bazelon is clearly objective in her presentation of situations she writes about in her book, even as far as showing what I refer to as a neutral take for the sake of presenting the science behind teenage behavior (i.e., the part of the brain that manages impulsiveness and judgment, referred to as the frontal lobe, is not fully developed as of yet) and why the punishment of teenagers is meted out in juvenile rather than adult terms.  Though that is far from an excuse for certain atrocious behaviors that bullying can all too often entail (and believe me, when I read about some of these bullying cases, I wish for every last person that has anything to do with a child’s bullycide to be punished to the FULLEST extent of the law), as they become adults and as long as they are provided counseling (instead of jail time), bullies can see the error of their ways and shed their bullying selves completely.  Some bullies have even gone as far as becoming anti-bullying activists with a mission to speak to schools around the country.

This book needs to be read by not just middle and high school staff, but by all parents.  I fervently believe as many people as possible should read it so there is a widespread understand of the culture of bullying, how to prevent it, how to support the victims, and how to inspire bystanders to become upstanders.

The article leave us with this nugget to chew on as we look at the road before us.  A road in which we need minds to come together to figure out how we need to handle bullying, given all the complexities Ms. Bazelon mentions in her book:

“Ultimately, Ms. Bazelon wisely warns us, we still have to try to let kids be kids.  [Otherwise] ‘We risk raising kids who don’t know how to solve problems on their own, withstand adversity or bounce back from the harsh trials life inevitably brings.’ And so, she says with a sigh: ‘It’s a tricky balance to strike, the line between protecting kids and policing them. But we have to keep trying to find it.’”

Please click here and here to previous blog posts for more links on previous posts relating to teen angst, depression, and bullying…and why I write about it so much on this postpartum depression blog.

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5 thoughts on “A Must Read: Emily Bazelon’s “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy”

  1. Thanks for the article, I will check it out!

    I was subjected to all of that too & that is why I have such a hard time even thinking about my daughter going to a public school. I know a lot of people go to public schools without any issues but after going through that I can’t help but feel the way I do. I am sure you understand!

    Yes, we are thinking a Catholic school possibly. She goes to a very small preschool right now with only 7 other kids in her class & I wish she could stay here forever lol 🙂

    I agree, knowing & looking out for the signs & talking about it is something I definitely will do with her.

    Thank you for the response, it has given me a lot to think about!

    • Oh, absolutely, I do understand!!!! It’s tough with each school transition. As you probably know, I moved a lot, and making friends was tough for me. So, my daughter’s transition from her daycare/Kindergarten to 1st grade was tough for all of us, as we were fearful of how she would handle the new kids, new school and new before/after care–not to mention she was so darn painfully shy! We had wished so much that she could’ve continued on to elementary school with the friends she spent the prior 4 yrs with. Her daycare groups/Kindergarten were pretty small compared to her class sizes in elementary school. I’m hoping to stay in this town until at least when she gets to college. Having friends follow with you through all the grades really helps. I was deprived of that. It could’ve changed my whole experience as a kid/teen.

      We want to protect and prolong the innocence of our girls for as long as possible. I know all this talk of bullying these days is very anxiety-provoking. If you ever want to chat, please let me know. I think you have my email address and phone number. Hugs! xoxo

  2. Ivy, do you know if there seems to be more bullying in public schools vs private? My husband went to a private school & had a great experience & I went to a public school & had a horrible experience & now that we are looking at schools for my daughter the thought of putting her in a public school scares me! Do you know much about this or if you have any thoughts/resources I would love to hear them!! (Maybe even do a blog post on it??!!) 🙂

    • Hi Andrea-
      Hmmmm, you ask a very good question! I would think that there is generally more bullying in public vs private schools. Here’s an article that I just stumbled on, which indicates that stats show less bullying in private than public schools. http://news.jrn.msu.edu/bullying/2012/04/01/private-school-bullying/

      For one thing, in private schools kids are expected to wear uniforms (or am I thinking Catholic schools?) to literally be uniform. Bullies generally seek out certain things that stand out about another student. Things like shyness, not having many friends, and their physical appearance. It’s when the girls get to their teen years and they are vying for popularity/boys that the gossiping, excluding, backstabbing, excluding, and general meanness come into play. I was subjected to all of this, and the mere smell of my daughter’s elementary school and school where she goes for Chinese lessons make me flash back to the smell of when I was in school. Not a very pleasant flashback at all. Are you thinking about a Catholic school, perhaps? I think with those schools the teacher/student ratio is lower, students have generally similar backgrounds and the schools tend to be much less tolerant of bullying behavior (or so I’ve read) and more apt to punish bullies.

      Your husband may have done very well in public school too…depends on diff factors, like whether he had a good number of friends, his overall personality, nothing about him that stood out that would attract bullies, his ability to handle stressful situations, etc.

      I’m really concerned about my daughter too, as many parents these days are. She is in a public school. She is extremely shy but with exposure to more and more activities, and as she matures, she has been getting better…thankfully! As our girls get older, we need to keep a close eye on their behavior and make sure there are open communication lines at all times. As soon as there is any hint of bullying, we need to address right then and there. Fortunately, we are in NJ and the anti-bullying regulations are pretty strict here.

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