HomeHealth & BehaviorBullying

Sticks, stones, and drama: the truth about bullying

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By Connie Matthiessen

You emphasize the importance of character and empathy in combatting bullying, and suggest that parents should be instilling these qualities in their children. Do you think parents aren’t doing that enough?

I think that’s a danger for middle class parents today. We want things to be perfect for our kids, and I understand this as a parent: you want your kids to be happy. But I think we also need to be instilling the skills and moral capacity for empathy, and that doesn’t come about just by ensuring their happiness.

The power of empathy

Empathy is really important. I’m interested in the role of the audience in bullying incidents, and how to harness the empathy of bystanders to stop bullying. Research shows that four out of five bullying incidents have an audience, but observers step in to stop bullying in just one in five cases. When they do step in, they stop the bullying half the time. When kids are interviewed, they’ll tell you that they oppose bullying. So bystanders are an enormous untapped resource.

This is why building kids’ capacity for empathy is so important. It’s something you can do when you’re sitting around the dinner table with your kids. You can ask questions like, “How would you feel if you were in that kid’s situation?” And you can model for your kids helping others, doing frequent small acts of kindness.

Books are also a great resource. For instance, there’s a book I read recently with my kids, Wonder by R.J Palacio. It’s about a boy with a serious facial disfigurement, he looks different in an alarming way and he’s entering the world of middle school. The book is intense, not maudlin, and it tells the story from the perspective of different characters, not just the boy himself — you get the point of view of everyone involved. Reading books like this with your kids is a great way to help them understand other peoples' experiences. [More resources for parents.]

What surprised you most in your reporting for Sticks and Stones?

I was struck again and again by how often the initial reporting of a bullying situation turned out to be wrong. That’s why it’s important to be skeptical when you hear about a bullying incident in the news. Just last night, for example, I heard someone on CNN say that Adam Lanza [the Newtown shooter] was bullied. I’ve seen no evidence of that anywhere, but I think we’re in a cultural moment where bullying is in the public consciousness, so people quickly jump to that conclusion, and it’s not always the case.

Connie Matthiessen is a San Francisco writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Health, San Francisco, WebMD, and other publications. She has three children (who provide a close-up perspective on great and not-so-great schools) and two chubby cats.