Today’s New York Times has a thoughtful op/ed by Slate’s Emily Bazelon, the author of “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.” Bazelon writes about the problem of bullying and some of the myths that surround the issue.
Bullying is a particular form of harmful aggression, linked to real psychological damage, both short and long term. There are concrete strategies that can succeed in addressing it — and they all begin with shifting the social norm so that bullying moves from being shrugged off to being treated as unacceptable. But we can’t do that if we believe, and tell our children, that it’s everywhere.
The definition of bullying adopted by psychologists is physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance. In other words, it’s about one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable.
But when every bad thing that happens to children gets called bullying, we end up with misleading narratives that obscure other distinct forms of harm.
Although she has authored a book on the subject and would stand to benefit from the increased attention and concern about bullying, she admonishes her readers to be careful. The media hysteria that sees an epidemic of bullying virtually everywhere and sees the normal slights and tiffs of childhood as evidence of a culture gone bad has prompted her caveat that kids haven’t suddenly turned rotten.
In fact, our concerns about this recently discovered ill has resulted, as Bazelon points out, in adults in some ways contributing to the incidence of bullying by adopting laws that “straightjacket their response to a bullying accusation, rather than allowing them to use their judgment and take account of context.”
I had first-hand experience of this many years ago when one of my sons and one of my nephews (now both in their thirties) attended an LA Unified middle school and were involved in a physical altercation with a would-be bully. They responded to the bully’s assault in kind and ended his obnoxious behavior.
My son, nephew and I were called into the vice principal’s office and told that the LA Unified’s rule was that a kid who responded in any way other than to call a teacher (or other adult) to help was viewed as equally culpable as the bully and that both (bully and victim[s]) would be equally punished.
I distinctly remember telling the v-p that those weren’t my rules and that I have told all of my kids (my nephews and nieces had been similarly admonished) that if they are intimidated or pushed around by anyone they have my ok to respond in kind, “you don’t have to take s**t from anyone” were my exact words to them. I told the v-p that if the District wanted to assign detention to my kid and nephew that’s their decision, but it will have no effect on how my kids act in the future. Our rules differ than LAUSD’s.
If that rule still obtains in the LAUSD there is little doubt that it helps foster more victims and bullies. The failure to take into account context and kids’ needs to respond to intimidation has helped create an asymmetry that Bazelon recognizes, “Bullying victims need sympathy; they also need help learning to be resilient” (emphasis added). Treating victim and aggressor alike encourages passivity and victimhood, not resilience.
Ultimately, though, for all the bullying hysteria, the “epidemic” may be a manageable problem that can be dealt with by reasoned responses,
by many measures, teenagers today are faring better than they were a generation ago. The rates of teenage pregnancy, binge drinking and drunken driving are down. So is violent juvenile crime and even fighting on school property.
Those heartening developments help explain why bullying is holding our national attention: as a society, we have the wherewithal now to attend to a psychological harm that has long deeply affected kids, but which adults used to mostly ignore. Bullying is a problem we can and should address. But not if we’re wrongly led to believe that it’s everything and everywhere.