The following post is sponsored by Chase - a strong supporter of the Bully Project, a program committed to ending bullying and ultimately transforming society. Learn more here.
Between recent news stories on bullying and the Bully documentary exploring the epidemic, there has been a much-needed national conversation about the problem of childhood bullying. Much has been said about protecting kids from bullying, and last week I wrote about how we can try to prevent our kids from becoming bullies as well. Today I want to talk about the role that a majority of kids are most likely to fall into: that of the bystander. While most kids (and even parents) might assume that a passive witness to bullying is a neutral role, studies indicate that the bystander can actually actually contribute to the problem. As Eyes on Bullying explains:
“Most bystanders passively accept bullying by watching and doing nothing. Often without realizing it, these bystanders also contribute to the problem. Passive bystanders provide the audience a bully craves and the silent acceptance that allows bullies to continue their hurtful behavior.”
With this in mind, I think it is important to teach our children how to react to bullying when they observe it so that they can become an instrument of change instead of an audience. One way to do this is to teach our kids the importance of accepting diversity in all forms. Research indicates that children who are perceived as "different” by their peers are the most vulnerable to bullying. This can include race, gender variance, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disabilities.
Many parents are beginning to embrace the idea of raising their children to be “allies” to other children, particularly those who are marginalized. Being an “ally” involves a person of privilege deciding to support and defend those who are at risk of being disparaged. It involves the acceptance and celebration of diversity, which is the antithesis to bullying. Learning to be an ally is a complex role involving recognition of privilege, and it’s one I’m still figuring out, even as an adult. However, I do think that we can impart the basic concepts to our children. Here are a few ideas:
Talk about fighting prejudice. My kids and I talk frequently about the concept of “prejudice”. We use this as a blanket term for all of the “isms”: racism, sexism, etc. They understand that judging, excluding, or mocking someone because they are different is a big offense. While we may miss discussing all forms of prejudice, I believe that pointing it out and holding them accountable will help them to generalize when they interact with the world.
Expose kids to diversity. Take stock of your life: the media, the dolls, and most importantly, your own social circle. If it only represents people who look and act just like you, it might be time to mix things up.
Provide examples of social justice. Point out those who fight for injustice, and help develop a healthy sense of heroism for people who defend others. If your kids value people who fight bullies, they are more likely to behave in this way as well.
Encourage friendships with children who are physically and culturally different. My friend Jo Ashline says this so well in a post she wrote about encouraging friendship with kids with special needs:
"Once your child has invested in a friendship with someone with special needs, those back portables on campus suddenly become meaningful and any injustice at the hands of peers towards the students in the special education program becomes a glaring warning sign that someone needs to take action. Your child is much more likely to defend and stand up for our special needs children when they’ve seen first hand how amazing our kids really are, having spent significant time building a relationship with them; not just seeing “beyond” their diagnoses, but embracing them for who they are."
Teach kids to accept and defend gender non-conformity. I know from experience that kids tend to police gender roles. My own daughter has literally cried before because one of her brothers decided to wear a tiara, and this did not follow her rules for How Life Is. I remember reading the post of another mom, who was dealing with her son being bullied for preferring a pink backpack. As she described the way the kids in his class reacted, I thought, “Oh my word. My kids could be those bullies.” Since then. we’ve been talking very frankly about gender rules, and how some kids may make different choices and that it’s important to be accepting.
Be open to your blind spots and willing to learn. I described one of my own blind spots above, and I will acknowledge that it is impossible to prepare your child for every aspect of difference or potential bullying that they may encounter. However, I think that as other parents share their own unique experiences, we can humbly listen and consider how we can prepare our own kids to interact with the world. I was appreciative of the parents who read my post about kids calling out my own kids on their adoption status and decided to chat with their kids. Similarly, the parents who wrote some variation of, “Meh. it’s your problem” made me lose my faith in humanity a little bit. Kids whose differences are called into question are EVERYONE’S problem. None of us will get it right, but all of us can be willing to do our best.
Role-play bullying situations. Role-playing can be a very effective teaching tool for kids, and helping them determine their words and actions if they are ever a witness to bullying can prepare them in advance to be an ally instead of a bystander.
Have your kids ever been a bystander to bullying? How are you preparing your kids to stand up for kids who are bullied?