by Emily Bazelon, author of the forthcoming book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy (Random House, February 2013)
When I was in eighth grade, my friends fired me. Two and a half decades later, I can say that wryly: it happened to plenty of people, and we survived—look at us now, right? But at the time, in that moment, it was impossible to have that kind of perspective. Being rejected by the girls I loved left me crawling with insecurity and self-doubt—what had I done wrong? I disappeared from the lunchroom and hid during free periods. I dreaded the words “choose a partner” in class, especially gym, where you could either pair up and scamper away or stand there alone. At home I cried. On some level, I guess, I knew that I wasn’t the only lonely thirteen-year-old in the world, but how did that help, really? Instead of finding some inner source of comfort, I picked myself apart—was I too bossy? Irritating? Self-absorbed? What was it that had driven them away? What was wrong with me?
I can’t claim to have been bullied, at least not like the teenagers I write about in my book, Sticks and Stones, but I know the feeling of watching powerful kids rip a vulnerable one apart and not knowing how to diminish their power. Many of us have had a similarly indelible experience of bullying—of being predator or prey, of taking or failing to take a side, or being humiliated or ostracized or worse. We’re deeply affected by these encounters. They helped make us who we are, and the visceral memories and feelings stay with us, giving us a window we can actually see through, one that takes us right back to our childhood selves. We’re still trying to understand what happened to us and why, and what lessons we should draw from it all, about ourselves and about other people. And so a central question in my book is: Why does this particular aspect of growing up affect us so deeply?
This problem has particular urgency right now because it isn’t just confined to schools anymore—it’s on our computer screens and cell phones for all to see. With the constant connectivity of these devices, bullying has started to feel omnipresent, inescapable. This makes it more lasting, more visible, more viral. The consequences have infinitely expanded. Understandably, parents are more concerned.
Luckily, the heightened awareness of bullying has shined a spotlight on kids who are in need of protection from cruelty—because they’re gay, for example, or Muslim, or overweight. It has prompted a growing number of parents to talk to kids about the online risks posed not only by adult strangers but by their classmates as well. At some schools, the push to prevent bullying has intersected with the recognition that kids need to be taught how to treat each other right, and even how to empathize, and that taking this on is a community-wide project with academic as well as social benefits. It used to be that “safe schools” meant schools without guns and knives. Today parents, and school officials, too, equate safety with their children’s emotional well-being.
All of this has the potential to fuel the kind of sustained and transformative effort to reduce bullying that has previously fallen short in the United States—if, that is, we do it wisely and well. In hopes of helping to make that happen, I lay out some of the smartest ideas in Sticks and Stones. I hope it proves useful to you.