We Talk Bullying With Emily Bazelon

bullyingOne of the stories in our September issue that’s near and dear to my heart as the both the mother if a 15-year-old and the editor of this magazine is about how important it is to distinguish between bullying and drama. The idea for our story, Is it Bullying or Drama, grew out of an interview I did with Emily Bazelon about her must-read book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. The whole issue of bullying is difficult to deal with on so many levels, not least of which is the problem of even knowing what it is in the first place. When do we as parents and educators lean in? When do we back off? Bazelon deals with these issues in a really intelligent and nuanced way. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

I have a 15-year-old, and he’s beginning to roll his eyes anytime bullying is mentioned. How do we still talk about these really important issues without making the kids feel like “not this again?”

I think that it’s really important for adults to follow their teen’s lead. Kids, when they talk about bullying, usually are talking about something that’s pretty close to the academic definition—physical or verbal abuse that’s repeated over time and involves a power imbalance. Bullying is not a one-off fight, and it’s not a conflict that goes back and forth between two equal people or among a bunch of people. The kids have a really useful word for that—they call that “drama.” Bullying is something else: Bullying is one person or a group of people setting out to make one person or several people miserable in a way that lasts over time, like a campaign.

Do teens know Drama or Bullying when they see it?

Yeah, I do think they are pretty good at figuring that out, but I think adults often get mixed up and then become overprotective. Adults will see something mean, and they’ll worry that it’s bullying.

What advice can you share about stopping bullying?

Bullying almost always takes place in front of an audience, but kids intervene only 20 percent of the time. When they do intervene, though, they can stop the bullying half the time. So intervening really does work.

So why do you think more kids don't step up?

I think the first thing to think about is that it’s really hard to confront a bully if someone is really being mean and is talking loudly or seems as if they have a lot of power. It’s really hard to be the person who confronts that in the moment. There’s this new word people are talking about: “up-standers.” My thing about that is that, that’s a good goal, but let’s think of a variety of realistic strategies kids can use.

What are some of the strategies?

It’s not always about standing up to the bully; it can also be about standing with the victim. When kids who have been bullied have been asked “What did your peers do to help, what really did the most good?” They actually talk about small gestures of empathy, like just asking if they’re Ok, or sending a sympathetic text message after the fact. You don’t necessarily have to be heroic in the moment to make a difference.

I think sending that message to kids is really important. Instead of adults exhorting kids do something that is hard and may not be possible, it’s like you’re meeting them where they actually live.

What else should we keep in mind?

We shouldn’t ask kids to do things that we are actually having trouble doing ourselves. Another thing along these lines that I think is important is that sometimes kids think that if they stand with a victim, they’re taking on being friends with that kid. And that can be too much to ask. We need to send the message that you don’t have to be this person’s close friend, but you can still do something kind for them in the moment. I think that’s another way in which we can sort of take kids off the hook and give them ways of intervening that are more realistic.

What about the bullies?

For most “bullies,” this is a period in their lives where they’re behaving badly, it’s not a permanent identity. So one of the things I think is really a problem about the whole label of “bully,” is that it makes it sound like this is just who you are and you can’t change.

Do you have a better name for it other than bully/bullying?

I’m skeptical about changing language, but it’s important not to call someone a bully or call something bullying unless that’s really what it is. I know people use words colloquially, and it’s different from how professionals use them, but before you call something bullying or call someone a bully, stop and think whether this is really a campaign to make someone miserable or is it drama, is it something that goes back and forth. Most conflict amongst kids is drama, not bullying. We know intuitively that that’s true, but we’ve had this national conversation that’s been taken over by bullying, and that’s a turn off to the kids, because they know that it doesn’t match their experience.

Also check out some other great stories we’ve done on bullying: Bullies Behind Bars, The Girl Who Got Even: A True Cyberbullying Story. And please tell us about how the issue is playing out in your schools or at home. Have you had any success stories you’d like to share? Or failures? Let us know in the comments!