Part of a continuing series of interviews with the people who live in our Metrowest community, by Julie Wolf

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. In the past, bullying was viewed almost as a rite of passage. There have been kids on either side of the bullying equation since the beginning of time. It was believed that the instigators would get it out of their systems and grow out of it, and the targets would develop a thicker skin and learn to stand up for themselves. We have learned in recent years that bullying can have devastating effects on a child, ranging from poor school performance to anxiety to, in the most severe cases, suicide. Twenty-four-hour access to social media exacerbates what for many young people is an already unbearable situation. Over the past decade, 49 out of 50 states have passed anti-bullying laws, which in general include guidelines that teachers and administrators must follow when they witness what they consider bullying in their schools.

Fortunately for most JFN families, our children are too young for this to be an issue that touches us in a personal way right now. But as we see troubling trends reported frequently in the media, what can we learn about bullying and the environment that allows it to propagate? I asked Hilary Levey Friedman to talk to us about it. Hilary is a sociologist whose primary focus is on childhood and competition. She has been asked often to speak on the related subjects of hazing and workplace bullying on the New England Cable News network. Hilary recently completed the book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, about elementary school-age children’s participation in competitive after-school activities — specifically chess, dance, and soccer — and is currently working on a book about child beauty pageants. “When you mix kids — and adults for that matter — and competition, you often get bullying and intimidation,” she said.

Hilary grew up in West Bloomfield, Mich., outside of Detroit. She is an affiliate of the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton University and the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where her husband, John Friedman, is an assistant professor of public policy. They live in Framingham with their 10-month-old son, Carston.

How young do you see bullying starting, and what are some of the causes behind it, if you can generalize about it?

There are many different kinds of bullying. Today we have physical bullying, verbal bullying, emotional bullying, and cyber-bullying. And bullying can continue throughout the life course, both in the workplace and among groups of parents and adult friends.

In general, though, bullying occurs when someone is seen as different — whether it be physically different or with different personality traits. In some settings, children are ostracized for performing too well, something I saw in my work on competitive kids, which I call “the problem of the high-achieving child.” Of course, when difference occurs, bullying is not inevitable, and we want to make sure children learn to embrace difference rather than distance themselves from it

You have a 10-month-old son who is blissfully unaware that anything like this can happen in the world. What will you tell him when he gets older about navigating peer pressure?

Based on what I have observed over the years, one of the best ways to raise children who avoid negative peer pressure is to find something that a child loves to do. When a child has a passion and feels like he or she excels at something, that helps them develop a strong self-identity and an abundance of self-esteem. This in turn helps them appreciate the accomplishments of others while staying focused on their own goals.

Can you talk a little about the different pressures placed on boys and girls? Again, how young do these sorts of pressures usually start, and what are some outcomes you see of them?

Girls face a lot of social pressure. One psychologist has called what today’s girls face a “triple bind.” They must (1) excel in school; (2) be nice and friendly — in other words, compete but still exude traditional feminine qualities, and (3) look attractive, and make all three look effortless. Boys simply do not face the same types of pressures. That is not to say that boys don’t face pressures. In fact, the pressure to excel athletically is unfair to many boys. But girls face more, which compound it. The social pressure can make friendships more difficult among girls.

On a personal note, what made you seek out Jewish Family Network? Are you interested in finding a Jewish community for yourself? Your son? Why do you feel it is important to be a part of a Jewish community, not necessarily religiously but socially?

Two different, but related responses here. My husband and I are new to the Metrowest area, and we’d love to connect with more families with young kids. Like many Americans, we looked to a religious organization to help facilitate those connections. Also, we made the decision to raise our son Jewish — we both grew up in interfaith families — and so we want him to feel a connection to the Jewish community early on in his life. Luckily Metrowest has many outlets for this, like JFN!

Your answer will resonate with so many of our families who are looking for community connections. I wonder if there are any Jewish teachings that might help us and our children deal with bullying in this competitive world they’re growing up in.

There’s a great Elie Wiesel quote in relation to the Holocaust that “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.” Even if your child isn’t a bully, they shouldn’t stand by and watch others bullied — an important lesson for Jews to remember.

Visit Hilary’s website at to read more of her important and informative writings about children and competition.




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