There’s no denying we live in a troubled world, one that, as parents, we often don’t like to think about. But ignoring difficult issues doesn’t help our children learn how to deal with them. In this article, I’d like to discuss one such issue, teaching our kids to be more than silent bystanders.
In a case in New York State last June that attracted nationwide attention, a group of teenagers cruelly teased an elderly school bus monitor as they filmed her torment and later posted the video on YouTube. In Richmond, California three years ago, as many as ten adults and teenagers gang raped a 15-year-old girl in a dimly lit alley behind the local high school during a school dance. And in the most publicized case of all, the recent sex crimes trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, it was revealed that in 2001 Michael McQueary, a 28-year old graduate assistant on the football team, witnessed Sandusky raping a ten-year-old boy in the locker room shower.
Besides the dehumanizing victimization of others, what do all these incidents have in common? They all share the fact that innocent bystanders were present who could have intervened in some way. In McQueary’s case, he walked away without stopping the molestation, didn’t report the incident to school officials until the next day, and never notified the police.
How can young people watch such horrific crimes and do little or nothing?
In pondering this question, I have to ask myself whether I’ve done enough to teach my own two sons to stand up for victims. Have I taught them to show moral courage in trying circumstances, and to be more than silent bystanders?
While I hope my sons never witness acts as horrifying as what McQueary or the Richmond bystanders saw, as adults they may very well be called upon to choose between taking right action or remaining silent. They’ll no doubt encounter not just individual victims, but the larger political, social and moral problems that bedevil our society. Will my sons be willing to blow the whistle if they witness company employees defrauding customers, politicians taking bribes, or government officials discriminating against the poor and powerless? Will they be willing to stand up and perhaps suffer the consequences of speaking out?
Even before they become adults, my kids will likely be presented with moral tests. What comes most quickly to mind are incidents involving bullying at school. In one landmark study of bullying, only 25% of bystanders intervened to help the victim, while 54% of bystanders acted as silent witnesses. Worse, 21% joined the bullying.
These dismal statistics caused me to wonder what group my own kids would fall in to, and I decided to learn more about what I could do to prepare them. From the wealth of information available to parents on the internet about bullying, three messages in particular resonated with me.
First, research shows that those who intervene to help victims often have parents who’ve instilled in them tolerance and empathy toward others.
Second, when bystanders intervene to stand up for the victim, they’re successful in stopping the bullying more than 50% of the time.
Lastly, parents can play a powerful role in empowering their children to be more than silent bystanders. Among the lessons that parents can teach their kids to prevent bullying are:
- It starts at home. Studies show that kids who defend victims are more likely to have open and supportive family relationships. The more comfortable a child is talking with her parents, the more likely she’ll open up about any bullying she sees. And don’t assume your kids have absorbed your values without discussion. Media and peer pressure are powerful forces that can color a child’s opinions.
- Teach your children well. Empathy, altruism, caring, and social responsibility are teachable concepts. Instead of accustoming our kids to ask, “Why should I get involved”, condition them instead to say, “I can’t simply stand by and let another person suffer.”
- Role-playing. Help children recognize the difference between teasing and bullying, which is the repeated harassment of one child by a more powerful classmate. Brainstorm with your children about different bullying situations and how they might react. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through storytelling.
- The moral of the story. Tell stories to your children that impart values and ethics. In his new book, “The Storytelling Animal,” Jonathan Gottschall writes that storytelling is “intensely moralistic” and an effective means of encouraging pro-social behavior. I’ve learned from my own experience that storytelling is a great way to impart life’s lessons to children. Since my own children were very young, I’ve made up an original story with them just about every night. In fact, one of their favorite stories is how a bullying victim uses the study of martial arts to deal with a bully without even having to throw a punch.
- Take a stand. Tell your children they should take action if they witness bullying. This doesn’t mean they have to step in front of the victim and duke it out with the bully. Give them options. Tell them to seek help from a trusted adult. If they feel safe in doing so, they can say something to the bully, or recruit other kids to divert attention away from the incident. They can give support to the victim by asking him if he’s okay or expressing remorse for what happened. Whatever your children decide to do, tell them it’s unacceptable to do nothing.
- Careful what you text. Remind your children that cyber bullying can be as harmful as physical abuse. If they see a classmate being targeted, tell them to save the message and notify an adult. As for their own online conduct, discuss etiquette with them, and the difference between positive and derogatory comments. Before hitting the send button, urge them to consider whether they’ve written anything they wouldn’t want to read aloud in front of their parents, teachers, or classmates. Better yet, would they want to see this text written about themselves?
While the list above deals specifically with bullying, such concepts can carry over and influence how your kids will react to difficult situations as adults. The lessons you teach them now will serve them well later in life when they are presented with even thornier dilemmas. Admittedly, teaching your children to show moral courage has risks, but failure to intervene can cause damage, too. As researchers have found, children who witness verbal or physical abuse and do nothing can become as distressed as the victims themselves. After all, what person wants to experience the nightmare that McQueary will live with every day of his life—knowing that he abandoned a helpless boy to a real-life monster.