What Kind of Bystander are You?

Jody McVittie, MD

Have you ever listened to a speaker and felt enormous relief – not because the material was really new, but because it was articulated in a way that shifted how you felt or thought about things? I was fortunate to be able to hear Rosalind Wiseman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabees) speak at Mamacon last weekend – and my aha’s were too many to articulate in one column – so you my see glimpses of her wisdom sprinkled over a few weeks.

It turns out that one of the most powerful ways to reduce bullying is to make sure that the bystanders learn to have a voice. Research has shown that bullying stops within 10 seconds 57% of the time when a bystander speaks up. Wow, a simple solution to a big problem, right? Wrong. It turns out that speaking up as a bystander is hard. We know that for adults, the bigger the group of bystanders watching bullying or violent behavior, the less likely it is that someone will speak up or do something to stop the problem behavior.

So if adults are so bad at it how in the heck do we get our children to do a better job? The good news: we can help. The hard news: it starts with us.

Imagine that your daughter and her friends are sitting hanging out in the family room – talking and texting and you hear, “Oh that is so gay!” Do you feel uncomfortable but remain silent because you don’t want to embarrass your daughter? Do you wait and talk about it in private afterwards? What do you do when you hear Uncle Alfred make a derogatory comment about women or children or people of a different race or sexual orientation? Do you just say to yourself or your children, “That’s Alfred, he is a little off color”?

What do you think that is teaching our children about how to be an effective bystander?

What could do you do instead?

Stop. Breathe. Notice what you are feeling. Know that your feeling is legitimate and that “mama bear” or “papa bear” energy is not the most effective way to move forward. Stay calm and think about what you’d like to do.

Speak. Tell the person what you don’t like and what you want. This takes practice to do calmly. “Using the word “gay” like that is a put down and we treat people with dignity in this house.” “I feel (offended, challenged, upset) when you say ________ because I’m working hard to teach my children to treat other people with dignity. (Not to make negative generalizations about people.)”

Stay put. When we speak up clearly and with integrity it can be surprising to those making the negative statements. They often respond with a defense, “Oh, I was just joking,” or a counter attack, “My we are thin-skinned today aren’t we?” It helps KNOW what might coming. Some useful responses are: “When you say you something like that and then say you are joking it means you are willing to hurt someone but not take responsibility for it.” Rosalind Wiseman’s other tip: when you are talking to a group of young people, let them know that it is fine with you if they talk to their parents about the conversation. After an invitation like that, they probably won’t, but if they do, it will not be an exaggerated tale of how outrageous you were. Instead they take you seriously.

Here is a list of books that inspire active bystanders.

Our children learn from our actions. Any question that what we DO matters? Read this story (3rd one down, from Heather) in Ask Amy.

Join us for a parenting talk Peaceful Parenting in a Fast-Paced World on June 14th at the Phinney Center. It is a benefit for Sound Discipline so we can expand our work in schools. Peaceful Parenting Flier here Registration here.
Photo credits: Zalouk Webdesign, Eddie-S