In her new bestselling book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Emily Bazelon tackles the subject of bullying — the hows, whys, and prevention strategies of one of today’s most pervasive topics. Bazelon, a senior editor for the online magazine Slate and a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, recently spoke with ACA about camp’s ability to foster empathy and problem-solving skills in children.
Why did you begin researching bullying behavior, and how does a culture of character and empathy deter bullying?
I started researching bullying behavior when I noticed a few years ago a lot of attention to cyberbullying. What I was really interested in — as a mother as much as a journalist — was the question of how technology, in particular social media, is changing how kids treat each other and what it’s like to grow up.
Kindness and empathy play a big role in preventing bullying. Once kids really have those skills and are thinking about the effects they’re having on other people, it can really change the whole bullying dynamic.
Tell us about your camp experiences.
I went to camp and my kids go to camp. I have lots of warm and fond memories of it. I think one of the great things about camp is that it allows you to make different friends and explore a different kind of identity than you have during the school year. I went to the same school from Kindergarten through twelfth grade, and it was hard to change in my school. Once people have a certain impression of you, it can be hard to strike out in a new direction. When you go away for the summer and you’re in a different environment, you get to kind of reinvent yourself.
Also at camp, you get to make friends who are outside of that normal context (for example, school), with whatever social challenges it has. So for me, especially when I was thirteen and fourteen, I made friends at camp who are lifelong friends and who allowed me to be a more playful, fun version of myself. That was crucial. They were kids who I stayed in touch with and visited during the year. And they really opened up a whole new opportunity for a wonderful social life that was different from and complemented what I had in school. At times when I was having trouble with other kids at school, I had this alternative situation with my friends at camp and the sense of “there are still people who like me in the world.” That was really important. And I want all of those things for my kids, too.
Would you say that the new, chosen social identity that kids can take on at camp helps make it a good place to encourage compassion and community?
The people who run camp have to be very sensitive to social dynamics. Groups and cliques can form at camp the same way they do at school. But the small group sizes at camps can be really helpful. Also, the adults can really set a tone of acceptance and of valuing kids for different kinds of contributions they can make.
One other strength of camp is that, instead of only valuing academic success, which is the main thing kids strive for in school, there are many other kinds of attributes and skills that kids demonstrate and see in each other at camp. I think it really opens up the possibilities of valuing other people and feeling good about other capacities kids have.
In your research, it seems that you’ve found that, although we try to make it very black and white sometimes, bullying is actually complex. Why do you think kids bully?
There are a few different kinds of bullies. It’s not just one, monolithic group. There are kids who are physically dominant and thuggish in an old-fashioned way, like the big kid who steals your lunch money. They still exist, but there are fewer of them than there were a generation ago because of zero tolerance policies toward violence in school.
Then there are kids who I often call “mean girls,” although they can be boys, too. They are more manipulative. They bully in order to gain social power, to become more popular. And so for them, the solution is changing the dynamic so that they don’t get rewarded for being mean.
Another kind of bully is the “bully- victim,” which I think often gets left off the list, but is important. These kids are both bullies and victims. They lash out, but usually that’s a cry for help. The more manipulative kids may bully these bully- victims into doing their dirty work for them. Usually, they’re the kids who are just really struggling for social acceptance, and they’re at the highest risk for psychological problems. So in their case, the bullying behavior, while it can be hard to deal with, doesn’t have the same kind of manipulative deceit behind it that it can for some of the other kids.
A fourth category includes kids who are — as some of the kids in my book call them — “Facebook thugs.” Usually, bullying doesn’t only happen online. But there are kids who can be kind of mean and aggressive in person who really act that way online, trying out brasher, harsher personas. Sometimes they say things online that they would never say in person because they’re not looking the other person in the eye; they don’t have the same cues for empathy because they can push “send” really impulsively. Online communications are prone to trouble for these and other reasons.
Are there any common traits in kids who are often bullied? Are there any certain traits in bullies that camp staff can be on the lookout for?
Kids who are bullied are often physically weaker and more submissive and passive than other kids. Those are traits that camp staff can look out for. The kids who seem shier and less assertive — and in boys, smaller — may need extra protection.
In terms of looking out for bullies, there are some kids who are pretty obvious about their aggression. They act dominant, and you can see them lording it over other kids. One thing that’s really important is just for adults to react and respond and not turn a blind eye. That still happens too much.
The other thing, which is harder to anticipate, is the bully who is subtle and operating under the radar but causing a lot of social torment. Adults can figure out who those kids are by having really good, open communication with all of the kids in the group. Kids need to feel comfortable coming to adults for help, which sometimes can be hard for them to do.
Some camp sessions vary from a few days to several weeks. Does the length of time that campers spend together affect the severity or even the presence of bullying?
I would imagine that it could go either way. You could have a situation where a group that only has a short time together doesn’t gel. If the campers don’t get to know each other well, and they don’t feel like they have a lot at stake, there could be a kid who just asserts himself and his dominance and is really mean. Everyone might go home before it’s even totally figured out.
But you can also imagine that if there is a kid who is really acting cruel and it drags out over the course of the summer, it could be really devastating. There would be more time for the repetition of bullying.
In general with bullying, we worry about it becoming chronic. A bad experience often can feel worse when it’s repeated over and over. So in that sense, I’d be more worried about the longer summer session.
What can camps do to strike a good balance between protecting kids and encouraging group problem solving when bullying issues occur?
Ask kids to brainstorm about solving their own problems. One of the hallmarks of overcoming adversity and of resilience is believing that if you work hard to make something better, it will improve.
Say to kids: “I hear what’s happening. What do you think we should do? This is a community problem, it’s not your responsibility to solve it personally. What do you think should happen?” That way, you’re giving them two things: 1. a good solution that they’ll help come up with, and 2. the problem-solving skills to believe in themselves and overcome adversity in the future.
In those talks, should you discuss the role of bystanders with your campers?
Yes. I think that’s crucial. We know that bullying almost always takes place in front of other kids. Kids only step in about 20 percent of the time. When they do step in, they can stop the bullying more than half the time. So bystanders have a lot of power, and it is really helpful to get kids to think about stepping up. “Standing with victims” is often a good way to phrase it, because “standing up to a bully” is a hard thing to do. But luckily, we know from research that victims of bullying find it helpful even when bystanders just offer them empathy in small ways, like by asking if they’re okay or putting a hand on their shoulder. Small gestures can actually be really meaningful, and I think it’s useful to give kids a variety of strategies to be a bystander. Some of the stronger, more socially successful kids may be able to stand up to bullies, but other kids are going to need other kinds of smaller strategies to pursue.
What can camps do proactively to create the community of kindness and compassion that we’re looking for to preventing bullying?
It’s crucial for adults to set the tone from day one. Kids really pick up their cues from adults. And at camp, when everyone is entering for the first time, it’s the messages the adults are sending about their expectations and how they’re treating each other and the kids that are going to reverberate. When you go into a school or a camp where adults are sniping and yelling at each other and at the kids, you’re much more likely to see bullying.
One of the things about my sons’ camp that I find so heartwarming is that they have created an ethic in which the older campers truly look out for the younger campers. They cheer them on in sports; they guide them through the various color wars and other team events that take place; and there’s just this sense that the older kids are — in a really good way — the older brothers of the younger kids. (It’s an all-boys camp.)
When I go to visit them, I’m always struck at how these older kids are getting a kick out of these younger kids — as opposed to finding them irritating or picking on them. It’s the opposite. It’s a very successful dynamic. My kids entered this camp when they were young, so a lot of their happy experience at camp has to do with feeling like the older kids are interested in them.
Any final thoughts?
One of the things that’s so important for growing up, particularly for teenagers, is to have adults in your life who you trust who don’t have direct power over you. They’re not your teachers and they’re not your parents. And for the duration of the summer, while staff are looking out for you, they do have some authority over you; but for the rest of the year they don’t. For kids, I think this can be a tremendous resource — having other adults in their lives who they feel like they can turn to and who care about them.
I think camp is just a tremendous opportunity for kids. I wish all kids could go to good camps; it really makes a huge difference in their lives. I think camp counselors, directors, and staff can be some of the wisest adults that kids encounter.
ACA’s Knowledge Center — bullying prevention tips, articles, and advice for camps: www.ACAcamps.org/child-health-safety/bullying
Originally published in the 2013 September/October Camping Magazine.