In a new book, the Slate editor reveals her experience at the hands of bullies and recommends a solution. Step one: teach kids empathy.
If there were ever any doubt that the scars of bullying can be overcome, witness Emily Bazelon, one of the most popular female journalists in the country. The 42 year old mother of two is both a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, not to mention the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School (her husband is a Yale professor too, incidentally). This year she adds to that already crowded resume with her first book Sticks and Stones, which places bullying, and her own experience, squarely in her sights.
“A few years ago I started reading news stories about cyberbullying, and partly I was intrigued as a parent because my kids are 10 and 13 now,” she says, in the Manhattan office of Random House. “I couldn’t really tell exactly what was happening, but it seemed clear that the Internet was changing how kids grow up in this way that involved also how they are mean to each other. I’ve had an interest in empathy for a long time, and also in resilience among kids.”
Bazelon’s experience of bullying came at school. “It was just a period in the eighth grade when really my friends decided they were not my friends anymore,” she says. “I thought a lot at the time about what I could have done to bring that on, but I think it remained mysterious to me. It was very deflating, and made my question all kinds of things about myself.”
She eventually reconciled with the two girls in high school and is still friends with them now. But in the meantime the experience caught up with her later in life, when she started her first job out of law school. Before she began work, she had an agreement with her boss that allowed her to work remotely part of the time. However, her coworkers started to resent the arrangement and decided to exclude her, only talking to her when they absolutely had to. Bazelon could not come to terms with the situation for a while.
“You know that feeling when you realize that people are talking about you and furious, and you somehow missed all the signals. That really stuck with me, that feeling of being taken aback,” she says. She left that job several months later, and her subsequent accomplishments speak for themselves. It’s almost as though there was an upside to her experience.
“For me those were forms of adversity that were humbling and probably very important for developing as a person. Like not taking other people’s goodwill for granted, or not assuming people are gonna like you. That’s ok to have that instinct,” she says. “The problem is that for other people the consequences are much more severe and really problematic for their emotional and psychological well-being.”
But Bazelon’s sympathy extends to the bullies too. One of the most affecting stories in Sticks and Stones concerns the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a South Hadley, MA high-school student who had been bullied by six teenagers, all of whom were brought up on serious felony charges by the Massachusetts D.A. Elizabeth Scheibel. Bazelon criticized Scheibel’s handling of the case in Slate, arguing that she found it too severe and unjust. Phoebe had had a long history of depression and family-related issues, she argued, which might have influenced her tragic decision. In response, the D.A. called Bazelon’s editor at Slate and tried to block publication, which rattled the writer. In a previous instance, Scheibel had pursued a journalist at the Globe tracing his sources and trying to subpoena him. The prospect of being subpoenaed and facing jail worried her.
“I had this moment with my boss on the phone, he was like ‘Look, Emily, we will support you all the way and we’ll fight this to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. But if you lose, I just want you to know, you’re not going to jail for this.’ And I remember just bursting into tears,” she says. As it was lawyers working for the Washington Post (which owns Slate), resolved the issue and her stories ran without issue.
What’s to be done about bullying? Bazelon recommends that parents who suspect their child is being bullied first confirm the facts. “Make sure it really is bullying. Much of the conflict between kids is two-way and sometimes people throw the bullying label out there,” she says. “Also, if you are right and your child is being bullied, you have the evidence to make your case.”
She also advises parents to teach their kids empathy. “A lot of parenting is about responding to your kids’ emotions appropriately and meeting them half-way, imagining how they feel at the moment, but I think you can also ask kids to do that themselves too,” she says. “We use literature to do that, we read a lot of books with them out loud or listen to books and in my favorite kids’ literature empathy is so naturally present, you don’t have to pick it out.
“Sometimes our society gets very caught up in personal achievement and this feeling that you have to compete and beat other people as opposed to the value of everyone moving through things together.”
Agata Blaszczak-Boxe is a freelance writer based in New York. You can find her here.
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