Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon. Random House 2013. Random House Audio 2013. Reviewed from borrowed copy of audiobook. Making this part of my “vacation reads” series, figuring most of my readers who work in schools are on vacation now or soon will be!
Bazelon looks at bullying in depth: what it is, what people think it is, the way it’s been treated in the news, the manner that anti-bullying classes are incorporated into schools. She does so by examining the stories of three students in detail, as well as taking a historical look at the study of bullying and how children interact with each other.
The Good: A must-read, nuanced examination of what “bullying” is, and isn’t, especially the difference between “drama” (conflicts between kids) and “bullying.” The definition of bullying Bazelon uses (from research by Dan Olweus): “it had to be verbal or physical abuse, it had to repeat over time, and it had to involve an imbalance of power.” “Drama,” because it doesn’t involve that power (or has shifting power dynamics), is a more common occurrence, but still should be taken seriously. Bullying is also “a behavior that peaks in middle school, continues to some degree in high school, and then declines significantly in college.”
What to do about bullying and drama? Sticks and Stones looks at how the culture of a school matters, and what anti-bullying programs work and why. Most important? Creating a school culture that doesn’t reward bullying or drama. Creating such a culture is neither easy nor simple; it’s not about a one-time assembly.
Easy or simple: the biggest take-away I had from Sticks and Stones is that bullying (and drama) isn’t easy or simple. Easy or simple reactions or solutions at best, don’t work, or at worst, create a worse problem. Is a bully best served by suspension or being expelled, or is he or she best served by helping them have empathy and other skills to not bully? Add that assumes that the situation is indeed bullying, and not drama between two equals (or two kids with varying degrees of power, depending on the time and situation.) “Drama” has it’s own issues, yes, but since resolving personal conflict is a much-needed skill for adults, part of childhood drama has to be children and teens working it out without adult intervention.
The second biggest take-away? The issue of mental health and children and teens. Some of the reason for the decline in bulling seems to be about the growing maturity of those involved, both in terms of greater empathy and in greater skills to combat or ignore it. Put empathy and awareness aside, there remains the mental health of both the bully and the victim. A child may bully because of underlying mental health issues; a victim may react in ways because they are already fragile because of their mental health.
The third take-away? Bazelon talks about creating a culture of empathy within schools. As I see and observe behavior in media — in TV shows, or in comments sections, or in politics — I think a bigger culture of empathy is needed.
I would like to say more: about the programs discussed, the children Bazelon interviews, the situations examined. Sticks and Stones is so nuanced, and Bazelon’s treatment is such, that I don’t want to give bite size, simplistic confusions. Just, this: Sticks and Stones is a must-read, which offers much to the reader in terms of how best to work with children and teens and what programs to use in schools. Part of the reason I decided to post this now at the beginning of summer vacation for many schools is I think it will give readers who work in schools time to think and plan for what they will do at the start of the next school year. Also, while Sticks and Stones focuses on children and teens, I’d also say it gives a structure for analysis for adults who encounter their own situations involving bullying and/or drama.
Further reading: Defining Bullying, a The New York Times op-ed by Emily Bazelon; review at The New York Times; review at S. Krishna’s Books; Interview with Emily Bazelon at NPR; Can We Really Stop Bullying at Slate. Edited to add The Power of Empathy: Q & A with Emily Bazelon at SLJ.