Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
This children’s rhyme is as familiar as it is debated in today’s society. With the rise of bullying in its many forms, words can actually be quite harmful. In her recent book, Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon tackles this issue head on.
Bazelon began her investigation into bullying when she was still an editor at Slate magazine in 2010. She investigated the high-profile suicide of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts high school student. From that experience, Bazelon’s interest was captured. Sticks and Stones is a continuation of the work she began in 2010.
When Is a Behavior considered Bullying?
And when is it just teenage drama? In Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon places undesirable student actions into two categories:
- Bullying: characterized by repeated acts of physical or verbal aggression in which a physically stronger or more popular child wields that power over a weaker one. According to Bazelon, most children do not get involved in the “oppressive brutality of bullying.”
- Drama: Interactions, disagreements, and conflicts between children who are otherwise equal does not count as bullying. Drama is generally two-way behavior that happens between students of the same age group. This behavior is common and can be unpleasant.
For Emily Bazelon, actual bullying is a repetitive harassment, verbal or physical, that is denoted by a lack of empathy. Bazelon, on Colbert, described empathy as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining for a moment what it’s like to be someone else and have their struggles…like growing up without enough money, or feeling really left out, or feeling socially awkward like you don’t belong.” Bullying results when children and teens “freeze their own feelings of empathy and are not good at recognizing it in others.”
Bazelon finds this ability to freeze one’s own feelings of empathy particularly rampant in online forums and social networks. She cites instances of sites like Facebook and Formspring being used time and again to harass other students. She urges parents to rethink how they supervise their child’s free time and Internet access. According to Bazelon, “[I]f you wouldn’t let your kids out at night alone, why would you give them unfettered access to every corner of the Internet?”
Despite the increased availability of social media to students of younger and younger ages, Bazelon characterizes true bullying as “unusual.” According to Bazelon, “The rates haven’t risen, and the kids who are involved as bullies or victims or both is between only 10 and 25 percent of kids in all categories. Most kids aren’t bullies and they don’t get bullied.”
Sticks and Stones: The Book
In the first half of Sticks and Stones, Bazelon focuses on three students and presents the hot topic of bullying from the perspectives of victim and perpetrator:
- A 13-year-old girl named Monique whose problems began when she changed her hairstyle, and it happened to be the same hairstyle as the cousin of one of the eighth grade girls. Monique was harassed about her hair for months and her mother and grandmother could not get satisfactory action from the school, the superintendent, of the local government on the issue.
- Jacob, a flamboyant gay young man, was tormented due to his sexual orientation. Like Monique, Jacob’s father got little response from the school and Jacob eventually was forced out.
- Perhaps most interesting of all, the third student profiled is Flannery, who was one of the students accused of tormenting Phoebe Prince. Bazelon treats her story carefully, understanding that though she was an aggressor, it doesn’t mean that she cannot also be a victim.
The second half of the book looks at ways to solve the problem of bullying and focuses on a culture that must be changed.
Using Sticks and Stones in the Classroom
Sticks and Stones can be a valuable tool to start conversations about bullying in the classroom and the community. Bazelon’s website includes a Teacher’s Guide for using Sticks and Stones in the classroom. This extremely helpful guide includes
- Lesson plans with essential questions
- Writing prompts
- Connecting activities
- Discussion questions
- Supporting materials
Praise for Sticks and Stones
- “Her most winning achievement is the kindness she demonstrates throughout the book. She is nonjudgmental in a generous rather than simply neutral way, and she culls as much pathos from the circumstances of bullies as from those of their victims. She identifies not only the sadism of abusive children, but also their sadness. She is a compassionate champion for justice in the domain of childhood’s essential unfairness.” Andrew Solomon of The New York Times, February 28, 2013.
- Sticks and Stones is “richly detailed, thought-provoking…” Vinca LaFleur of The Washington Post, March 15, 2013.
- “A humane and closely reported exploration of the way that hurtful power relationships play out in the contemporary public-school setting . . . As a parent herself, [Bazelon] brings clear, kind analysis to complex and upsetting circumstances.” The Wall Street Journal.
Who Is Emily Bazelon?
Emily Bazelon, Slate Magazine’s DoubleX women’s section co-founder and current staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, wrote Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. Bazelon has had a long career in research, law, writing, and publishing:
- Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School
- Frequent guest on the Colbert Report
- Co-host of the weekly podcast Slate Political Gabfest
- Editor and writer at Legal Affairs magazine
- Law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit
- She has appeared on numerous political talk shows such as Morning Joe, PBS NewsHour, Fresh Air, Morning Edition, and All Things Considered.
- Her work has been published in Atlantic, This American Life, O Magazine, the Washington Post, and Mother Jones, among others.
- She is a graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School.
Sticks and Stones by Emily Bazelon is available at bookstores everywhere and online at Amazon.com.