We are poised n the start of another school year, and with it comes an increased focus on bullying.
A new book coming out next week looks at the phenomenon specifically from a boy’s perspective, examining bullying as part of a larger cultural problem that disproportionally rewards physical prowess and sports proficiency, leaving boys who aren’t drawn to athletics vulnerable.
“The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood,” (Berkeley Books) was written by Janet Sasson Edgette, family psychologist and mother of twin boys, and Beth Margolis Rupp, an educator.
Edgette and I talked about her inspiration for the book, why we all seemed to have just woken up to bullying as a problem and why the “boys will be boys” mentality is dangerous.
Below are excerpts from our Q&A:
JD: Why did you write this book now?
JSE: I actually started writing this book seven years ago. I had nine-year-old twin boys; Austin was a terrific athlete, and Jake was not. For years I’d already been noticing that this difference between them in physical abilities was so much bigger than just a difference in what they liked to do, or in what they were good at. It was a difference that had meaning for a lot of things: how each boy viewed and thought about himself as well as his twin, how well each was included in games and jokes by the kids on the block, whether waiting at the bus stop was easy or an excruciatingly self-conscious experience. In grade school, Austin leveraged his physical talents commendably into an elevated social status, while Jake struggled to find a place of comfort.
There were no books to help me talk to Jake about the things he was experiencing and no doubt thinking about, and no resources available to help me shore up his confidence in a social environment that didn’t value his particular skills, most of which were rooted not in body-kinesthetic but in interpersonal, intrapersonal, and existential sensibilities. And yet I knew that he was far from the only boy experiencing this marginalization from his community of peers — kids who believed that the only boys you really wanted to be seen hanging out with were those who, like yourself, matched up well with the stereotyped image of aggressive, sports-crazed, thrill-seeking, risk-taking males.
So, I figured I’d go ahead and write the book I wished were available to me.
JD: Can you talk about how our cultural dismissal of boys who don’t embrace sports or are “picked last” is related to bullying?
JSE: Whether we like it said or not, our society makes kings out of certain boys who then become our leaders and standard-bearers.
If we’re ever going to be able to quash the bullying, we’re going to need to hold ourselves accountable for society’s role in institutionalizing and sanctioning victimhood for nonathletic boys. We already know that we need to speak up against the abuse of personal power among children whenever and wherever we see it.
What we haven’t realized yet, is how much we need to disabuse our fellow adults of their illusions that all boys love to play sports and other competitive or aggressive games, and that there’s something the matter with the ones who don’t. When the grownups stop their exaltation of the physical, and learn to appreciate and seek out males’ many other sensibilities, the children too will stop.
JD: With the increased focus on bullying in recent years, there’s been some push back, with certain parents saying that many incidents described as “bullying” are really just kids being kids. Where’s the line between bullying and immature behavior?
JSE: Bullying is immature behavior, so there really isn’t any line. But what this question brings forward is our population’s collective suggestion that maybe-- just maybe -- we should lighten up a bit on all this anti-bullying and understand it as an expression of immaturity in kids -- i.e., a normal phase (especially in boys), something they’ll grow out of.
What a slippery slope that is though. There is already too much disguising of downright bad behavior on the part of boys by simply describing it as immature, or a matter of “kids being kids.” In these situations, kids, essentially, are given exemptions from appropriate social behavior based on the assumption that they don’t know better, or are at the mercy of their unmodulated impulses and emotions. They do know better; to wit, they manage to control themselves just fine in all the contexts in which it matters to them how they are perceived.
… By “unpacking” the language surrounding bullying, we can see it for what it is-behavior that intimidates, reduces, humiliates, devalues a person’s sense of self, or induces fear. What becomes apparent is how different it is in intent from other types of immature behavior, some of which may appear goofy, irrational, or ill-timed. Bullying may be all of those things too, but it is also and always mean.
JD: Why do you think we are just waking up to bullying as a problem, has it intensified in recent years or have adults become more sensitive to its repercussions?
JSE: Many things have brought bullying forward and are exposing it in ways never before possible. Not too long ago, bullying was a problem involving two, three, maybe a handful of kids. It happened in places where nobody saw it, or it disappeared quietly with a visit to the principal’s office or a call home.
But now, with the advent of the Internet and cell phones, bullying has a new, higher level of visibility and a higher level of play, with its exploitation of kids’ naivete and need for acceptance, and capitalization of public viewing. It is a runaway train.
… There’s more. Boys and girls are killing themselves after spending years being bullied, and we are reading about it the very day it happens. We see their faces and learn their names. Their stories have empowered other victims to come forward to tell their stories, and they are finding audiences online that are more receptive than ever. People are ready to hear.
What are your thoughts on bullying?
Is it a discipline issue or a cultural issue? Has it gotten worse or have we just begun realizing how bad it’s always been?