"When I was in eighth grade, my friends fired me," writes Emily Bazelon in her new book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.
It's a short sentence but it captures the pain and fear of every girl who has ever had her teenage friends dump her suddenly and then spent months or years trying to figure out why.
The book – the first for Bazelon, a writer for Slate and a graduate of Yale College and Law School – looks at bullying through the eyes of three children who were victims or perpetrators. It's a compelling take on the issue, in part because Bazelon both takes bullying seriously but also cautions against overreactions to what in some cases is normal teenage behavior.
Children need to learn how to fight, she said just before appearing on a panel about bullying at Greene Towne School in Center City Tuesday.
She distinguishes between what kids call "drama" and true bullying, which is defined as "verbal or physical abuse that repeats over time and involves a power imbalance."
Children who bully often do so to score social points among friends. It's often difficult for adults to know how to respond to bullying, said Craig Stevens, a psychologist at Germantown Friends School, which counts Bazelon as a graduate.
"It's really important that adults don't slide into bullying the bully," Stevens said.
Instead, adults should talk with everyone involved to get a sense of what is creating the problem dynamic.
Often, Bazelon said, educators need to work on changing what she calls "the school climate," which means rewarding empathy and helping kids find other ways to work out their frustration. One school, she said in her book, found it helped to hang posters quoting research showing that 90 percent of children do not bully.
Social media present a whole new set of challenges, Bazelon said, but bullying on Facebook and Twitter is still rooted in the same social dynamics. She advises parents to help their children wade slowly into this new world. When she bought her son a phone, for example, she chose a so-called "dumb phone" whose features are limited only to phone calls. That allows him to start slowly, saving phone photos and texts for when he's a little older.
Bazelon also recommends rewarding children for empathy and talking to them about how to show it. Parents should praise a child who shows concern for others just as much as they would an "A" on a test. Adults also can teach children how to safely stand up against bullying. Children don't always feel comfortable standing up to bullies, she said, but they can learn, for example, to send a text message to a victim expressing concern.