Monday, February 18, 2013

Bullying, what is it good for?

You know what the thing about bullying is? I don’t like it.

“Great,” you are probably thinking (rolling your eyes), “this is sure going to be deep and insightful post.”

But I have thought about it and that is what I’ve got. I thought about it because I was – I’d like to say fortunate enough but I guess I can’t – to receive an advance copy of Emily Bazelon’s new book, Sticks and Stones, subtitled Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. This is a book written for adults and, indeed, all adults with some responsibility towards kids. And as one of those responsible adults, I came away from the book thinking that “bullying really sucks and really I would prefer it didn’t exist. It’s just so unfair.”

However, if my teenage daughter can whine to me about things that are hard to deal with that she just would prefer wouldn’t be there – such as the cost of paintballs or why her clean clothes haven’t emerged from the magic basket that transports them to her closet or the fact she has to write another poem in iambic pentameter – I don’t see why I can’t just join her.

Bazelon is not an unfamiliar person toreaders of this blog. Her kids must be about the same age is mine and so for a good eight or so years, her issues in Slatewere my issues too. I didn’t always see eye to eye on her approaches but I was forced to think about my own after reading her work.

This time it was different. Bazelon was not motivated by anything that was happening to her kids – or if she was, she didn’t say. Instead, she was motivated by the criminal trial of six teenagers accused essentially of bullying another teenager, Phoebe Prince, to take her own life. This turned out to be a case of prosecutorial over-reach that makes what happened to Aaron Swartz look very tame in comparison.

What Bazelon does is centre a broad investigation of bullying focussing on three children. The first, Monique, is a straightforward (if that is the right word), case of a bullied child. The second, Jacob, is the bullying of a gay kid. And the third is not Phoebe Prince but Flannery, one of the six accused of bullying her. Bazelon does something that, when you think about it, is surely extraordinarily difficult. In each case, she investigates and tries to work out what really went on.

I cannot imagine what that was like. The easy case would have been Flannery because there were court documents that assembled evidence and testimony (including texts and Facebook posts). But the other cases, she would have been forced to be the judicial investigator; basically disentangling the hearsay, the inferences, the judgments, the interpretations to find out what was real and what wasn’t. All by interviewing and talking to teenagers. In reading this, I kept wondering what kept Bazelon herself from just shouting at them all asking them “to get a grip.” I know there were times I was doing that, rolling my eyes so much that they hurt. “Oh please, you cannot be serious.”

But Bazelon kept her cool and ploughed on. She took us back and forth from the stories to the academic literature on the subject. She touched on cases written about in the past. And she kept an eye on where she wanted us all to go.

And where I ended up was: I was essentially grateful; which I know contradicts how I seem to have begun this post but bear with me. Right, at this moment, my kids are not being bullied and have never been bullied to the extent of the stories Bazelon tells. It is just hard not to breathe a sigh of relief at that because what was happening to the kids in Sticks and Stones was a parental nightmare. To be sure, we, as parents, have had to deal with a bullied child (I’ll come to that in a bit) but it was dealt with and things are very good now.  But it is hard not to read this book and really just think that we are currently very lucky. Not just to not have bullied children but what personally would seem much worse, to be the parent of a bully.

To cover this, I am going to reverse the order that Bazelon chose and start with Flannery. Flannery was not bullied but, as I am pretty sure Bazelon wants us to conclude, she was bullied be the system. She was the victim of a culture that finds it easy to assign simple blame in the face of tragedy. She was also the victim of a enforcement approach that now values “making a public example” of would be wrong-doers. In that she disproportionately is harmed by the system trying to minimise future enforcement actions. Again, the analogy to Aaron Swartz would not be lost on anyone. This time, however, it was another, essentially troubled kid who died. The problem is that in some ways more lives were taken with her. All of this perhaps could have been avoided.

But this also reveals the difficulties associated with bullying. It can be mis-diagnosed. Accusations of bullying may be made where none exist. Bullying may be ignored or passed off as something else where it does exist. And this is all made worse by the fact that it is all hard to deal with even when it is properly diagnosed. This is because teenage social existence involves an awful about of pain and learning. The issue is when to intervene.

The second case of Jacob is an insidious one. Jacob was openly gay at school in much the same way as other kids are openly geeky or otherwise express a preference from differing from the norm and thereby drawing attention to themselves. It is so easy to cringe and plead for conformity just to avoid the pain. But that is precisely the wrong response. One does not necessarily expect Jacob to be popular as a result of his chosen style but when he is subject to trauma as a result of it we are creating a less free society if it is allowed to continue. The appropriate response isn’t to hide or to bide your time until you can move to an accepting group; creating social ghettos. Instead, it is to bake acceptance into the pie early.

The first case of Monique is, in many respects, what should trouble parents the most. There is a sense in which it is typical. Basically, Monique seemed to be doing just fine at school until one day, it all changed. And by one day, I mean one day. Monique went to school an unbullied although not necessarily popular kid and came home a bullied and isolated one. And it never stopped. And it was miserable. And for some reason, it seems to happen in almost every grade of almost every school in the world. I saw it happen and it happened for a time to me when I was in high school. And when it is bad, to the beleaguered parents there is no easy course of action.

The problem parents face is that they usually suspect it will pass. They advise changing strategies, avoiding the bullies and reassurance it will get better. The problem is that the reason this has occurred is that there is a bully playing this game. The bullied child is a unwitting victim of a bully’s desire to exercise power. For them to rise to the top of the social heap, they have to demonstrate some form of superiority over another. The bullied child is their victim and, moreover, they just don’t do it once and move on. Instead, it seems to be a continual target. In other words, bullies don’t spread the pain around. Not only is it wrong for obvious reasons, it is fundamentally unfair. Why my child and not some other? If it is some other, then I wouldn’t have to deal with it.

Dealing with it is hard. My daughter became the target of a bully a few years ago. The bully wasn’t popular and had a history of bad behaviour. But she made my daughter miserable. Eventually, like Monique’s parents, this was only solved by moving schools. In our case, we had other reasons to shift schools than the bully but she was at the top of our daughter’s list. Indeed, she vetted new schools herself to see if there were likely bullies among them. Somewhat ironically, during the time we were in the US, the bully actually moved schools herself – to my daughter’s new school! It won’t surprise you that this was one of the things at the top of her list advocating a move to Canada rather than going back to Australia. And to tell you the truth, we were grateful with a by-product of that decision not having to deal with the bully issue again.

Bazelon covers a lot of ground with all sorts of strategies that can be deployed to mitigate the bullying problem. It is all good advice. And it is all hard work. And it has to start early and continue on while involving the kids, their parents and the school. She spends an entire chapter on social media that concludes that those running Facebook and the like should also be part of the conversation. Bazelon has shielded her own sons from Facebook for the moment. As you may know, this is where I partsignificant company with her. I want my kids on Facebook early and with some parental supervision. That way I have a chance of helping them work through these things. Moreover, in social media, all of the evidence is in writing. That makes a difference in many ways. But importantly, and I have seen this, there is much mutual support and good social behaviour there as there is bad. And to have perspective you need to see it all and not just hear about things when there is a problem.

My point is this. For the most part, incidents of bullying are fundamentally random from the perspective of the parent. It would be awful for someone to read these cases and cocoon their child. For the vast majority of kids, they won’t be subject to the worst cases. Freedom socially is an important thing that they must have in order to really learn.

That said, it seems to happen all of the time to someone. If it is happening to your kid now, I suspect this book isn’t going to help much. You probably have already investigated the literature, talked with teachers and anguished at the situation. Once it happens, you are no longer an objective player in this as a parent.

But it could happen to you. And the message of this book is that you need to think about these things in advance. Sticks and Stones may break your heart on the way, but being forced to think about this when you are less emotionally invested, will never hurt you.

So I don’t care if you, like me, don’t like bullying. But deal with it today by taking a few hours to prepare yourself with this book.