Sticks and Stones

I’m reading Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon.  It’s an excellent book and broadens the conversation on bullying significantly.

One thing I’d wondered about is the family life of some high profile teen suicides. The book confirms for me that gay and lesbian teens who feel supported by their families are far less likely to experience the depression and suicidal thoughts of teens who do not feel supported by their families, even if they are bullied. The rush for media to use the headline “gay teen bullied to death” has given reporters and readers tunnel vision and ignore a very important fact about bullying — that kids can weather it a million times better if they feel safe at home. They also protect homophobic culture by making no connection between the family’s distance and disapproval (often for “religious” reasons) and the more extreme forms of distance and disapproval they experience at school.

Another important point — something I suspected and the book verified — is that widespread bullying is an aspect of school culture and can be foiled by the adults in the school setting the right tone… or fostered by adults setting the wrong tone. The extent that one principal in the book washes his hands of a routinely bullied gay teen at his school upsets me far more than anything done by teens in this book.

Nobody is born a bully. It’s taught by the culture. There’s just no way to reconcile parents and teachers and schools administrators passively marginalizing kids and the more forthright bullying done by kids. They aren’t making this stuff up, they are just ham-handed with it.

A third theme that arises, and one that’s played out in a couple of my books, is that the whole thing is (usually) more liquid than one relentlessly victimized loner and a bunch of sociopaths; the dynamics are complex. A kid can be a bully one day and a victim the next. Or vice versa.

One thing I found illuminating is that kids distinguish between “drama” and “bullying.” “Drama” is the kind of circular social bullying — kids ranking on each other, basically. I knew that there was a difference between this and the more trademark bullying where one kid has all the power, but having a different word for it is helpful.

It’s good that everybody is talking about bullying, but if the conversation is one dimensional it’s just noise. This book expands on understanding and our vocabulary for a more meaningful discussion. I highly recommend it.

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