Sticks and Stones
by Emily Bazelon

Random House, 2013. ISBN 978-0-812-99280-9.
Reviewed by Penny Leisch
Posted on 02/19/2013

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Sticks and Stones, by Emily Bazelon, explores the tough subject of bullying and dissects it in ways that inform and prepare parents, teachers, media, and other officials in education and law enforcement about how to handle problems before they escalate. She addresses what goes on behind the scenes, why it's not always the bully's fault, why what we do so often doesn't work, and what does work. As a writer, editor, and former law clerk, Bazelon understands how to do research on paper and in the field. She formulates a definition of what bullying is and is not, a critical piece of groundwork.

Although research about bullying and bullying programs existed in Europe in the early 1980s, people in the United States ignored the topic until the Columbine shootings took place in the 1990s. Within the next fourteen years, forty-nine states put laws on the books about bullying. Today's generation of parents often don't realize that protection of children didn't begin until the nineteenth century. How many people heard, and still hear, the sticks and stones mantras of "just walk away," or "boys will be boys?"

Bazelon chronicles the stories of three kids and explores how the situations escalated into community-wide wars, without solving the problem. She also examines schools that succeeded in reducing bullying and describes successful strategies. Bazelon dispels several common myths, such as: girls bully more often than boys, online and in-person bullying are entirely dissimilar, bullying is a common cause of suicide, and harsh criminal penalties are effective deterrents. In addition, she describes how the various media venues operate and why they may not be beneficial to the children or the community.

One clear message from successful anti-bullying programs is that it takes consistency, long-term commitment, and an investment of time and money to make a lasting difference. As is typical with many social problems, people in the U.S. want fast, cheap fixes and schools often try too many new things at one time. The fix-it-and-make-it-go-away attitude rears its ugly head when we refuse to see that the wrong approach can make the problem worse, or refuse to face the fact that cultural norms for behavior are not taught consistently and frequently, if at all.

While I can see that being a problem, I also wonder whether another part of the problem might be that cultural norms vary widely in melting pot areas, which are now most cities in the U.S. Many people in older generations can remember a neighbor correcting them because adults outside the family enforced appropriate behavior and kept parents informed.

It may take a village to raise a child, but the village no longer participates. Norway found that bullying is an equal opportunity problem not affected by the size of the school, town, social status, or a student's urban or rural location. The problem goes deeper than violent games, poverty, or working parents. Yet, Norway also proved that a well-implemented program reduces the problem by 35-50%.

Bazelon's deep discussion provides a solid foundation for everyone to understand this subject better and offers valuable guidance to parents, as well as those involved in setting policies. Her style is easy to read, and she doggedly pursues realistic answers. Parents and teachers will come away from these stories shell-shocked by the reaction of some adults, even entire school districts. Still, after all the horror stories and frustration, she goes beyond the research and policy issues to offer helpful guidelines for parents and teens. Sticks and Stones ranks far above other books on this topic.

Emily Bazelon is a senior editor at Slate, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, and the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at Yale Law School. Emily has also been a Soros media fellow, an editor and writer at Legal Affairs magazine, and a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, as well as a guest on The Colbert Report, the Today Show, the PBS Newshour, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation. Bazelon graduated from Yale College and Yale Law School. Visit her website.

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