Sticks and Stones: The Truth About Bullying

“Even though Columbine wasn’t caused by bullying, it became the single driving force that created the anti-bullying movement,” said Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, at a New America NYC event on April 3.  It’s an example of “when good things happen—”

“For the wrong reasons,” said Emily Bazelon, finishing Cullen’s sentence.

Discussing her newly published book, Sticks and Stones, with Cullen in front a packed audience, Bazelon challenged the classic assumption that mass murders and suicides are directly caused by bullying.

An example of that distorted thinking: When high school student Phoebe Prince committed suicide in 2010, the media was quick to attribute the suicide to bullying. But Bazelon, a Slate magazine senior editor, took a trip to the South Hadley high school to hear the story as it was told and understood from within the school. She discovered that Prince’s narrative was more complex than the version that was being fashioned by the public’s imagination.

Despite that oversimplification, narratives like Phoebe’s  can serve a useful purpose: they create a heightened level of awareness about bullying,  intensifying the public outcry for change.

That outcry becomes problematic when the public conflates “meanness” with bullying, Cullen suggested.  He posed the question to Bazelon: Is meanness the same as bullying?

According to Bazelon – it isn’t. And it’s critical to make a distinction between the two. Children must be given the space to experience “meanness” and resolve conflict in order to grow into healthy adults. We cannot define bullying as every conflict that arises between kids, she said.  Instead, she offered a concise definition of bullying: verbal and/or physical abuse that is repeated over time, and involves a power imbalance.

Cullen reflected on his own childhood encounters with bullying – “I was a gay kid who didn’t know it yet” – and the relentlessness torment he received, the “going to bed and knowing that it’s going to happen tomorrow. ” His story demonstrates the chronic nature of bullying.

After defining bullying, a crucial question still remains: how do we combat it?

Bazelon is wary of legislation that pushes for harsher criminal punishment for bullies; instead, she calls for prevention as the best solution.

In schools, the challenge lies creating an atmosphere that is conducive to empathy and kindness: one that does not tolerate or promote aggression, but rather motivates kids to stand up against bullies.

“But how many of us would actually stand up to a bully?” Bazelon asked, and then recounted her recent attempt. Bazelon confronted a group of teenagers who were tormenting an older man on the subway. The bullies quickly turned their assault on Bazelon, harassing her even as she walked out of the subway. Nervous and sweating, she considered how hard this confrontation would be for child who knows that standing up often means becoming the next victim.

Nonetheless, she shared statistics that demonstrate the tremendous power of bystander intervention. Bullying almost always takes place in front of others, yet kids intervene only 20 percent of the time. But when someone does intervene, he or she stops the bullying more than half the time.

So how do we encourage more kids to intervene?

Bazelon contends that parents and teachers must begin to reward kids for acts of kindness and compassion  just as they would applaud them for getting an A on a paper.

To be sure, not all kids may be ready for the heroic and terrifying moment of confronting a bully. For them, Bazelon suggests a strategy of  standing with the victim. A seemingly small demonstration of empathy can help empower and support the victim. All you have to do is ask “are you ok?”