Despite intervention being the single most effective tool for stopping a bullying attack, is it safe to encourage children to step up and protect one another? In today’s school and community environments, there can be real danger for a child bystander who intervenes without genuine, sustained support from peers or adults. It would take a real act of courage for a single child to face down a group of bullies in the midst of a bullying attack – verbal, physical, or relational. The bullies are frequently older and bigger, usually with more social power, too.
As a result, I don’t recommend that a single child stand up and thrust himself into the middle of an incident. Not today. Ironically, though, that is exactly what we are working towards, our ultimate goal. Perhaps surprisingly, our goal is NOT to prevent all bullying and to teach everyone to always be polite and kind to one another (OK, it is our goal, but it’s not realistic).
Instead, we need safe environments, where one kid can say, “Oops, you crossed the line. That’s bullying. We don’t treat people like that here.” And the other kid will say, “Hey, I didn’t realize. Thanks for letting me know. Sorry.” And that’s the end of it. No problem, no taking your life in your hands to intervene, no risk of retaliation, just a mistake, a correction, an apology, and life goes on.
What’s The Solution?
We must work towards that goal of reclaiming and creating safe, bully-free environments, as a top priority, starting now. Adults and kids should live and work in environments where mistakes are caught early, anyone can point them out at no personal risk, the offender takes responsibility and apologizes, and the target accepts the apology and releases the (small) hurt.
Adults must lead the way, showing no tolerance for bullying, consistently and relentlessly searching it out and removing the oxygen that allows it to thrive. No more adult bullying, inconsistent adult words and actions, looking the other way until there’s an unavoidable crisis, half-hearted attempts to intervene, etc.
It’s only through this unwavering, “Yes, We Mean It” demonstration of adult leadership, guidance, and determination that adults and kids will learn, with certainty, where the line is and that each and every one of us is expected to do our part to create and maintain safe, accepting environments for all.
While adults must shoulder this responsibility, there is an important duty for kids too. Until it’s safe for individual kids to stand up to stop bullying, we can teach kids to stand up as a group, to object to the bad treatment of others. We can give them the language of positive peer pressure to use: “We don’t treat people like that,” “Hey, he’s having a bad day. Come play/work with us until he’s over his bad mood.” And to the bully: “You can come play with us too, when you’ve got it back together. Take a few minutes and calm down” (Note: this works for adults too).
This approach teaches several important lessons:
- Bullying won’t be tolerated and will be stopped at its earliest stages.
- Anyone can be and everyone is responsible for creating and maintaining safe, pleasant work and play environments. As a member of the class (school, team, workplace, camp), everyone is expected to contribute to that goal.
- Mistakes happen, it’s no big deal. When you make a mistake, take a positive time out to calm yourself down and, when you’re ready, come back to your friends, who still like you. Make amends as appropriate. We are helping kids learn the skills of emotional self-control and self-management. They might teach us something along the way!
It’s important that we teach this to kids, and the adults around them, starting when kids are young. If we wait until they’re teens, it will be a tough sell to undo years of hardened, unpunished bullying. All we really have to do is open our eyes, see problems earlier, and be willing to step in. Stepping in earlier gives us a much smaller problem to deal with, many more options, and a much better outcome.
To learn more about why kids (and adults) don’t intervene, or are ineffective when they do so, read Bystander Intervention Stops Bullying In Its Tracks, Part 1.