Father William Byron, S.J.

Character development and the cultivation of empathy are key components in any strategy to confront cruelty in children.

The topic of bullying has been in the headlines on and off for many years. A fine book by Emily Bazelon, “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” caught the attention of prominent reviewers and provides a balanced picture for the consideration of parents and educators who are understandably concerned.

Social media has made this issue a larger one in recent years. Elders who are inept on the Internet and unaware of what the young are up to out there in cyberspace are at a loss in the presence of the bullying problem. They see it in relatively rare (and often misinterpreted) instances of suicide associated with bullying.

But as Bazelon makes clear, if it is not persistent — repeated incidents over time — and malicious, it is not really bullying.

What is bullying? It is verbal or physical aggression, repeated over time that involves a power differential. The repetition and power imbalance are key elements. Meanness and malicious intent figure into the equation leading puzzled observers to ask: How do presumably nice children get that way?

This opens the door to an examination of parental neglect, value-free education, celebration of exploitation and violence in the entertainment media, and whatever it is that contributes to a healthy sense of self in a developing child.

Bazelon, who is a journalist and a lawyer, interviewed for this book many young people, who are part of the problem, and both parents and educators who are trying to confront it. By their own admission, some of the young are “Facebook thugs,” who say things online that they would never utter in ordinary interaction with others.

Why do they do this? They are usually girls — shy and meek in person, but harsh and threatening online. They are surely insecure. They affirm themselves by belittling others. The challenge, of course, is to gently guide them to the path of legitimate achievement — academic, artistic, athletic — as a way of developing positive self-esteem as well as stronger character.

The practice of empathy can help this development. Creative ways of engaging the young include responsibility for elder care, animal care, child care, cultivation of gardens, preservation of the natural environment, encouragement of good sportsmanship. None of this just happens. It has to be guided at home and in school; it has to be fostered by after-school and vacation-time activity.

Those who pick up Bazelon’s book will need a generous supply of staying power to make it through all of the first three parts into “Part IV: What’s Next?” And they will be rewarded at the end by a splendid list of “Resources for Readers” who want to become better informed and then do something about the problem.


Jesuit Father William J. Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.