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Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I'm thinking a lot today about bullies, bullying, and how it feels to be bullied. It's all over the news, of course. And it's in the books I am writing now, too.

People ask me all the time if things are very different now for kids than when I grew up. I've actually been asked that since my first book came out, and at first it was pretty funny because I was only 24, and had written that book while living in the home I had grown up in, with my mom cooking dinner for me and my dad playing the piano in the living room... not only were things similar, things were THE SAME.

Of course, the feelings of growing up and the hormonal storms, peer pressure, moral and emotional and physical growth -- all that has existed for a long time.

People are talking a lot, in many different contexts lately, about the feeling of loss and regret for the good old days before the turn of the century. Things have changed, we say. Things aren't like they used to be. Some of us are scared or angry, shouting or even just lamenting that things used to be better, safer, sweeter, easier. But it's probably a good thing to remember we have always felt that way.

John Steinbeck wrote about that feeling, captured it gorgeously in one of the most perfect chapters ever written, chapter 12 of East of Eden. He was talking about the turn of the last century of course. But the feelings are the same -- boys will still throw themselves down in the field crying and cursing and older men, forgetting, wanting to forget the "acid emotion eating at the spleen" will still think "What's that damned kid lying out there in the grass for? He'll catch a cold." "And "the strawberries don't taste as they used to."

Sound familiar? Maybe we don't realize how repetitive we are.

My grandmothers struggled with a lot of the issues and questions I did, and my kids do. But some things really are different.

One huge difference today is the 24/7 connection with friends -- and non-friends. The impact of that is hard to overstate. When I went to a party in sixth grade and had an argument with a friend or put my foot in my mouth or felt insulted, there was a whole weekend stretching ahead during which I could recover some balance. I would spend time with my family, or reading... I would have time away. Even every night was a break from the social whirl. I might talk on the phone with a friend or two, but it was necessarily really limited.

Now? You can't get away. Teens are already texting, IMing, BBMing on the way home from school or a get-together, and straight through until they are back together (and maybe even straight through that, too). When I was a teen, nobody had a camera at a party. If you made a jerk of yourself, whatever. Maybe people would remember but the story would always morph and be forgotten eventually. Now? Almost everybody has a camera (it's in their phone.) If you do something stupid, it will be on facebook within the hour, or the minute. I have heard teens moaning, it's too much! But breaking away is no simple matter. Being connected is the norm, now.

When I went to sleepaway camp, I felt like a year of social life happened in the 8 weeks I was there, because we never got away from one another, and there was no adult mediation (I probably didn't think the word mediation at the time -- or maybe, nerd that I was, I did). But that full-on, full-time connection is the way of the world for teens now.

It's exhausting even when things are good.

When things are bad, it can be brutal.

What can adults do to, well, mediate? To ease the drama and the tension? Anything? Parents or teens or kids -- what do you think? What do and can teens do to help one another, or themselves? How about kids? Do you have any tips you can share, either from hard-won experience or just hopeful thinking? Because it seems to me that for all the connecting we do, sometimes the pain is suffered in isolation, and in silence. Maybe we can use the beast of connection to forge something positive and empowering?

I read this incredibly heartbreaking piece yesterday in Jezebel by a woman who was bullied in sixth grade. I can't stop thinking about it. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, too.

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