Can We Really Stop Bullying?
Emily Yoffe interviews Emily Bazelon about her new book, Sticks and Stones.
Yoffe: What’s the legacy of the Phoebe Prince story? Are people paying more attention to bullying because of her suicide? Is there recognition that it was prosecutorial overkill to legally blame other students for a complicated and tragic situation—which you did so much to bring to light?
Bazelon: It’s mixed. It’s encouraging and telling that no other criminal prosecutions like the one in South Hadley, Mass., have been brought since then. There have been other suicides linked to bullying, but I have not heard of the heavy-handed use of the criminal justice system in response, so I am encouraged by that. The other thing I think is that generally speaking, the narrative of “bullycide” is not helpful and misleading. These are heartbreaking situations that don’t have a single cause.
Yoffe: If your kid is being bullied, what should you do?
Bazelon: First of all make sure you have all the facts. Sometimes your child is the target, but sometimes it’s more of a two-way conflict, what kids call “drama.” You don’t want to cry wolf, and so you want as much information as you can get. Then, if you’ve concluded that what’s happening really is bullying, you have the facts you need to make your case. One option is to go directly to the parents of the other kids who are involved. That can make sense if you know those parents are sensible and trustworthy. If you don’t know them or you don’t trust them, then it’s better to go to the school. Present as many facts as you can. And give the administrators or guidance counselors you’re talking to the benefit of the doubt: They have a lot going on, so give them a chance to deal with the problem.
Yoffe: What if your kid is the bully?
Bazelon: It’s always the parents’ job to be in their kid’s corner. But being in your child’s corner does not mean making excuses. You need to tell your child the behavior is not helping him and it’s hurting other kids. You have to be on top of it and send the message that this isn’t OK. You express that you love him but you want to help him figure out a way to stop acting like this. In my reporting, I could see a lot of parents in this situation just deciding it’s the other kid’s fault.
Yoffe: Are there essential differences in girl vs. boy bullying styles?
Bazelon: Boys bully girls and boys. Girls tend to only bully girls. We’re fixated on the mean girl image, but boys actually do more of the bullying. Boys tend to be more overt in their expression of aggression. They’re more likely to physically bully. Girls tend to express hostility more indirectly, through exclusion. Rachel Simmons writes that when one girl turns her back on another, it can be the most devastating gesture. That’s because, as she points out, girls tend to turn on their friends more than boys do. In the stories of bullying and cyberbullying that make the news, the focus tends to be on the girls. But when you look into it, there is often a boy in the center who’s actively participating, even though the entire situation is framed as the actions of mean girls.
Yoffe: Do the bullies enjoy it? I get quite a few letters to “Dear Prudence” from adults who look back and regret being bullies and wonder how to make amends.
Bazelon: I think most people do come to regret it. But in the moment, some kids are just thuggish, even if they’re not sociopaths. They get pleasure from taking other kids’ lunch money. Other kids take pride and pleasure in being the popular, manipulative bully, in their enhanced power as the quintessential mean girl. (Although as I was saying, this person can also be a boy.) These kids tend to be hardest for adults to smoke out. To complete my taxonomy, there are also bully-victims—that is, kids who are both bullied and strike out at weaker kids. These tend to be the kids who are the saddest, have the most serious problems, and have the most trouble later in life. For them, bullying is a kind of cry for help.
Yoffe: Of course not every bully outgrows it. We’ve all known of adult bullies in the workplace. So what do people do if they’re the victim of that?
Bazelon: To some degree adults are better at hiding contempt, but not all the time. If you’re stuck in a work environment where you can’t get away from people treating you horribly, it’s extremely distressing. It happened to me in my 20s, and it was really hard to deal with. Get help and support from people outside of work who can just make you feel it’s not you, that you are not, in fact, contemptible. And then you should look for someone at work you can trust to help you strategize about how to make the bullying end. But it’s really hard and the stakes at work can be even higher than at school. And people are never going to have total protection, for example, from mean bosses. Bosses have to be able to express themselves clearly in a negative way. That doesn’t mean anyone should be picked on, but it can be tricky to draw the line. This is a hard one for me to give general advice about—it all comes down to context, like so many dilemmas that your readers bring to you. Thanks for letting me be the one to give the answers!