Bullying – What it is & How to stop it.

Last week I attended an author talk at the Denver JCC by Emily Bazelon (@emilybazelon) of Slate and Yale Law School. She has researched and written about bullying extensively, including her book Sticks & Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.

In it, she gives an engaging picture of the nature of bullying and insights into how we can effectively address it. Over a series of blog posts, I’ll share my take on what she offers and some resources.

One major aspect I appreciate about Bazelon’s approach is her willingness to make clear statements and not fear others disagreeing with her. Just reading the first few comments on her Amazon page, it is clear there is disagreement. The practice in that comments section, and in her audience, should be to approach this conflict of differing perspectives in a respectful way, not re-enacting the “peer abuse” she wishes to address. So many seem to fall for the same easy trap our children fall for in leaving hurtful comments online. This simply models the abusive language we need to support our children to avoid.

Bullying is getting more attention these days and that’s a good thing for all of us. One of the first major points Bazelon makes is her careful clarification that bullying is not an epidemic. Because larger historical concerns like drunk driving and physical violence have decreased, and because the world is more inter-connected with info-immediacy, bullying is getting headlines.

Her point is that more attention and action does not equate to an epidemic; the fear of an epidemic often leads us to more severe measures that can be isolating. We need to address bullying with strategies that address the roots and cause of the behavior. She calls for empathic, character-building, community-strengthening interventions. That’s a good idea anyway for our schools communities and families.

With this in mind, we can address bullying for the very real, important concern that it is without labeling every child who is momentarily aggressive a ‘bully,’ and without a catch-all, zero-tolerance approach to behavior that falls under ambiguous definitions of bullying.

She makes the point that we need to use the words ‘bully’ and ‘bullying’ judiciously. First, it’s important to note that bullying is power-based, patterned (ongoing), and nuanced (verbal, in person or online, and physical). It’s helpful to use person-first language here: calling someone a ‘bully’ makes the behavior their whole identity. Calling someone who bullies just that (“a child who bullies”) preserves their dignity as a person and pinpoints a problematic facet of their behavior. Then, there’s a core of good one can tap into with them and help them separate themselves from that part who bullies for whatever reason – usually a reason worth addressing with empathy, compassion and supports to foster pro-social behavior. It’s important to address the situation proactively, not reactively, and with options and not prescriptions like mandatory suspensions from school based on uncertainties.

In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss more thoughts on our options for intervening concretely. I welcome your questions and responses to what I’ve written.

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