Book Notes: Sticks and Stones
Next Monday, May 6, the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr will host a free lecture by Emily Bazelon. The topic of the evening – Digital Citizenship – travels parental-terror territory: cyberbullying and the need to stress responsible teen behavior during a time when a single Tweet, text message or social media post can spiral virally out of control.
Bazelon, who grew up in Philadelphia and attended Germantown Friends School, is a senior editor at Slate (she's an indispensible voice on the always fascinating Political Gabfest podcast) and the author of the recently published Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy (Random House). I read the book this past March, right around the time a 12-year-old from Delaware County, Bailey O'Neill, was placed into a medically induced coma and died, a result of experiencing persistent seizures after being beaten by a peer. It was difficult not to think of this young Phillies fan when reading the extreme bullying case studies around which Bazelon structures her book – 13-year-old Monique, harassed in person and online right out of her Connecticut school; Jacob, a gay teen whose unabashedly "out" persona spurred a relentless rash of bullying at his upstate New York high school; and Pheobe, an Irish girl attending high school in Massachusetts, whose suicide led to criminal charges being levied against six classmates accused of bullying her to death.
The stories are heartbreaking and nuanced, taking into account points-of-view not only of the victims but also their parents, their alleged antagonists and the school administrators involved. The second half of the book discusses myriad anti-bullying campaigns and scholarly approaches to combating this social ill. As I read, I wondered which tactics would work should my sons ever find themselves at the wrong end of an extreme bullying encounter. And going forward, how would I even define bullying? Can the type of schoolyard nastiness most people (and my own kids) come up against at one time or another – mild name-calling, being picked last for a team or pushed on the soccer field – be categorized as bullying? How out-of-control does a classroom tiff have to get before a parent decides that teacher intervention is necessary? Moving online, how long should my husband and I let our concern about the cruelty of teens keep our trustworthy 13-year-old off Facebook? And once he's on, how closely do we monitor not only his own posts but those of his friends as well?
No doubt Bazelon will explore variations on these themes at the Baldwin School on Monday. (Click here for info.) Let us know if you're going. And chime in if you've read Sticks and Stones. For me, it brought up more questions than it answered . . . and I think that's a good thing, as it will force me to be an ever more vigilant parent.
Cheryl Krementz is MetroKids' managing editor.