I first met with Emily Bazelon to discuss the idea that became her book, Sticks and Stones, two and a half years ago, when my kids were six and eight. As we sat in a conference room and talked, I remember two things going through my mind: (a) Wow, this person is way more smarter than I am, so please let me get through this meeting without humiliating myself, and (b) the topic of bullying is fascinating, complex, and (dreaded word) important, but God, am I glad my kids are still too young to be dealing with it. Much has changed in those two and half years. Mainly, our kids went ahead and got older. They’re 9 and 11 now, and while they enjoy school and — knock on wood — have yet to experience the problems that Emily explores in her new book, the social dynamics, not to mention the world they’re living in, are growing ever-more complicated. I didn’t know it then, but this book – and the lessons to be taken from it, from the danger of the rush to judgment to the absolute importance of empathy – has been a fertile and valuable source of conversation at our dinner table. It has helped Jenny and me talk about these issues, while sounding like we know what we’re talking about. And that’s all thanks to Emily. Emily is an incredibly reassuring presence, somebody who actually bothers to do the research before opining. She’s an editor at Slate, a beloved fixture of their political Gabfest, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and – see point (a) above – a fellow at Yale Law School. Knowing that we have a lot of parents who read this site, Jenny and I thought it might be helpful to have Emily answer a few of our more pressing questions. — Andy
What’s step number one if my kid is being bullied at school?
First, make sure you have all the facts. Sometimes an accusation of bullying can seem straightforward, but then turns out to be more multidimensional once you understand the full context. Your job, of course, is to support your child. Sometimes it will be clear that he or she is the victim and needs your protection. Other times, however, you will learn that she is caught up in “drama” and has played an active role, rather than being simply at the mercy of bullies. Job number one, then, is to make sure that you have as thorough an understanding of the situation as possible. It’s important to protect your child but it’s also important not to cry wolf. If what’s happening really is bullying, the more specific examples you can cite, the better for making your case.
Even legitimate complaints can boomerang in bad ways if not carefully framed. If school officials are not responding the way you think they should, you may have to keep pushing by going up the chain of command. But remember: school officials are people, too, with a heaping plate of responsibilities and limited time, and the more you respect the role they play, the more likely they will be to sympathize. What I mean is, give them the benefit of the doubt and save the frontal attack for when you feel you have no other choice.
A lot of bullying doesn’t happen at school these days, though, right? So what do I do if my kid is being bullied on line?
You can ask a social network site to take down any content that violates its rules, as many harassing posts clearly do. At Facebook, for example: When the target of an abusive post reports it himself, they will generally take his word for it. So your child should report the abuse immediately. You should also keep a record of the cruel content—even if it’s painful and you just feel like deleting it forever. It’s almost never a good idea to reply to a harassing post. If your child is having continuing trouble, I’d advise taking a break from social networking for a while (though I know that can be a hard sell!). Kids can always go back on when things have calmed down. Finally, police have the authority to address cyberbullying under the harassment laws of most states. But calling in the cops should be a thought-through decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction because it often triggers a response that’s more heavy-handed than called for.
A possibly stupid question, but: What’s the difference between general meanness between kids and true bullying — and is this a distinction that matters?
There is a difference and it does matter. Yes, absolutely. The best definition of bullying, which psychologists who do research use, is verbal or physical aggression that occurs repeatedly and involves a power differential—one or more children lording their status over another. It might seem like semantics, but that definition is helpful because it’s limiting—it makes clear that two-way, mutual conflict (kids often call it drama) is not bullying. At the same time, when bullying is going on, it’s a form of mistreatment that kids often find very upsetting and that, evidence shows, links up with serious mental health issues and low academic performance. That’s true for both bullies and targets, by the way. The point is, the bullying label is one we should use sparingly, because when it applies, it has real significance. And using it too freely can drain precious resources.
When is it okay to involve the bully’s parents? If my child is being harassed at school, is it better to call the parents, or go to the school principal?
Depends on the people involved. If you have reason to think the parents of the kid who is bullying are part of the problem, or you don’t know them, going to them directly is probably not a wise course of action. But don’t decide against it just because broaching the subject would be awkward. If you have reason to think the other parents involved are reasonable people, on the other hand, you may be able to work together for everyone’s benefit. It’s great to be able to model to your children how to resolve conflict in a healthy way. Sometimes, however, if you’re dealing with a difficult family, it makes sense to urge your child to extricate herself from a bad friendship. If she is spending a lot of time with someone who is making her feel rotten, maybe she needs to walk away.
Where do you stand on phones for kids — and relatedly, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter? What seems to be the right age for all this stuff, and are some of these sites more common platforms for bullying than others?
When my 13-year-old son started a new school last fall, for 7th grade, my husband and I got him a phone. I felt like we’d delayed as long as reasonably possible, and that he was ready. We got him a pretty basic phone instead of a smart phone, though—one that he can text and make calls from, but that doesn’t have Internet. It’s a personal choice, but I just didn’t think he needed instant access to the web in his pocket.
For Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest: Legally speaking, kids can’t sign up until they’re 13. That seems like a wise limit to me, and in fact a recent Pew survey shows that while 82 percent of 13 year olds are signed up for Facebook, only 45 percent of 12 and unders are. So this is a rule that’s being broken plenty, but at the same time still has some hold. In terms of which site is better or worse, I don’t see a lot of evidence one way or the other on this. Twitter allows for anonymity and has no explicit rule against bullying and harassment, which isn’t so hot. Facebook demands real names, doesn’t allow bullying and harassment, and has put real thought into how to respond to kids who report bullying. But the volume of posts on that site is enormous, and incredibly hard to patrol. Instagram is really starting to take off with teenagers, and preteens — even down to third and fourth-graders — and the emphasis on photos seems worrisome to me. This stuff can spiral out of control pretty easily.
Lots of parents make different choices about phones and social networking than my family has, of course. In fact, I’ve been struck by how little community consensus there is about any of this. My own feeling is that the answer should be about your kid, what you think he or she can handle, and weighing the amount of social capital the phone or the social networking has among his peers. I’m in favor of delay if you can get away with it, but not at the expense of making your kid miserable. I’d rather see parents oversee and monitor then deny kids access entirely if that becomes a huge point of conflict. In terms of monitoring, it’s easier to start strict and then ease up. The way I think about it is this: It’s a new world my kids are entering, so as they take their first steps, I want to make sure to guide them.
What anti-bullying programs have proven most effective, and how would I go about getting my kids’ school to consider adopting them?
This isn’t an exhaustive list! But to answer the question: I like the anti-bullying approach that’s part of Positive Behavioral and Interventions Supports (PBIS for short; bad name, I know). PBIS is a framework for improving school discipline, and research has shown it can reduce the rate of office referrals, suspensions and expulsions, and bullying.
CASEL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning is an umbrella group for social and emotional learning programs, which are designed to help children learn to recognize and manage their emotions so they can make responsible decisions, handle challenging situations, and calm themselves when they’re angry. Many of the programs have been evaluated and shown positive effects.
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, founded in Norway, works with schools on three levels—the campus, the classroom, and the individual student. In the United States, the federally-funded Blueprints for Violence Prevention assessed more than 900 programs for juveniles and chose Olweus as one of only a dozen proven to be effective, and the only program specifically directed at bullying.
Second Step and Steps to Respect, two programs from the Committee for Children in Seattle, aim to prevent bullying by strengthening the bonds between adults and children in schools. Research has shown that Steps to Respect can reduce the acceptance of bullying and aggression among participating students.
Bullyproofing Your School, a program run in conjunction with the National Center for School Engagement, is designed to battle bullying through the creation of the “caring majority”—a group of students who ensure that their school is a safe place.
One thing that comes up a lot in your book — as the ultimate bulwark against bullying — is empathy. The crucial trait, right? Can it be taught?
Yes, thank goodness. This is a key insight, one that’s at the heart of every good bullying prevention or character education effort: empathy can be taught. For a small number of kids who bully, it’s true, the inability to feel goes deep and is the hallmark of a psychopath—someone who can inflict pain without feeling an ounce of compassion or remorse. But this is exceedingly rare. Most kids do feel or can learn to be empathetic and remorseful. It’s our job as parents to help them find that capacity within themselves, and build on it.