Book Review/Case Review

by Connie Dugan

first published in Reaching Out, A publication of FRIENDS: The Association of Young People Who Stutter, April/May, 1998, and reprinted below with the permission of the author.

The Meanest Thing to Say

by Bill Cosby

Scholastic Incorporated, Inc., New York, 1997, paperback, $3.99

One of the most important things we can do for younger school-age children is to help them cope with teasing. This is especially important for children who stutter. I have enjoyed using this book in my practice.

The Meanest Thing to Say was written by comedian Bill Cosby and illustrated by Varnette P. Honeywood. The book is aimed at children with a reading level, grade 2-4, ages 6-10. However, the theme and presentation are appropriate for older children, too. The illustrations are bright and expressive, but not at all "babyish," the book can be read aloud to a younger child.

In the story, Little Bill learns a way to deal with teasing by controlling his own reactions rather than fighting, retreating, or stooping to meanness himself. Little Bill's father teaches him to respond to hostile words by replying "So?" No matter how the bully escalates, Little Bill replies with a simple "So?" Eventually, Little Bill's tormentor becomes frustrated and retreats himself. The story goes on to reveal that the bully was feeling insecure himself. In the story, Little Bill is able to make a friend of a child who was initially the villain.

I would like to share how I used the strategy in The Meanest Thing to Say with one of my little clients. "Charles" was a athletic five-year-old, who, because of his size and physical skills appeared older than he was. He was facing an unusual amount of teasing from the neighborhood children including his cousins. They would often taunt him with "You stutter!" The children did not get much guidance about this interaction from the adults in their lives.

Like many children who stutter, Charles had added difficulty in dealing verbally with teasing because his words stuck even harder when he was taunted. His speech was so sticky that he couldn't reliably muster even the single syllable, "So?" And he was really angry. He was angry at me, too, because I was privy to his misery.

Naturally, we spent some time hurling Nerf balls and pounding Play-doh. We also began pantomiming in front of a mirror. With incredulous face, shrugged shoulders, and upturned palms, he could communicate "So?" effectively and reliably with body language alone. (I wish I had a picture.) This we called "The Stance." The word followed.

Charles and I enjoyed playing with a concrete symbol of our strategy. We used a weighted, inflatable clown, the kind that pops right back up when it is knocked over. I would make a silly teasing remark ("You have curly hair!") and push the clown down. As the clown popped back up, my little client would assume "The Stance" and shout (or giggle) "So?" We did this over and over again, and I gradually made the taunts more offensive. "You have big brown eyes!" Clown down. Pops back up. "So?" / "Your hair looks like squirmy worms!" Clown down. Pops back up. "So?" / "You just sneezed!" Clown down. Pops back up. "So?"

I let Charles dictate a teasing script for me. He commanded me to taunt him with the very words he often heard, "You stutter." I followed his lead and we practiced this again and again.

As we moved on to doing different things in therapy, I would occasionally surprise him with a taunt. He practiced "The Stance" and his reply so often, that it became automatic to meet my "teasing" with his canned reply.

Charles also enjoyed taking the role of the teaser and saying mean things to me. This gave him the opportunity to model control of my own reactions. I also learned some things about my own therapy. In our role play, Charles berated me with: "You bring this same old puzzle every time!" I smiled, assumed "The Stance," and said, "So?" but I did get some new puzzles. And I like them very much. Good point, Charles.

I didn't get to work with Charles for very long. I did get to talk with his mother recently. She said he talks about how much fun it was to play with me. It certainly wasn't fun for him in the beginning; he was one unhappy little boy. I am deeply grateful that he remembers it that way now.

added August 2, 1998