When Monique McClain entered seventh grade in Middletown, Connecticut, she encountered taunts, slurs and insults and eventually physical aggression from her classmates. In the eighth grade in upstate New York, Jacob Lasher endured physical and verbal attacks for over a year because he is gay. In a highly publicized case, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old student at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, committed suicide after enduring online and in-person taunts and physical attacks at the hands of several of her fellow students, including Flannery Mullins, who later faced criminal charges in Prince’s death.
In her absorbing book, Sticks and Stones, Slate’s senior editor Emily Bazelon captivatingly narrates the stories of McClain, Lasher and Mullins in an attempt to reveal the various ways that bullying affects the victims, the bullies, the families and the communities involved in such cases. She points out that bullies taunt and attack others because they feel that their behavior will elevate their social status, either by distancing themselves from a former friend they now see as a loser or by impressing members of an in-crowd. “How can families and schools dismantle that kind of informal reward system?” she asks. More importantly, “How can you convince kids that they can do well by doing good?”
Bullying comes in all shapes and sizes, but it must satisfy three criteria, as Bazelon explains: “It has to be verbal or physical aggression that is repeated over time and that involves a power differential—one or more children lording their status over another.” She also offers profiles of five types of bullies: the bully in training; the kid who acts like a bully, not out malice but because he’s clueless; the kid who is both a bully and a victim; popular bullies whose subtle taunts create insecurities in victims; and the Facebook bully.
In the era of social media, when taunts and bullying can become more insidious and damaging, Bazelon thoughtfully urges a fresh consideration of the nature and definition of bullying. We must not overreact, and we must be careful to “separate bullying from teenage conflict that is not actually bullying—from drama.” In a courageous conclusion—courageous because it is idealistic and contrary to popular opinion—Bazelon advocates overcoming bullying by instilling character and empathy in our children, teaching them to see that people’s feelings are more important than status and that kindness should be a value that overrides all others.