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 (more…)