Choosing Between Bystanding and Standing Up for Kindness

“It is only with true love and compassion that we can begin to mend what is broken in the world. It is these two blessed things that can begin to heal all broken hearts.” (Steve Maraboli) 

Attribution: Donna CameronThe vast majority of young people are not bullies and are not the bullied. They’re bystanders, and this, I suspect, is where efforts need to be focused to make bullying a thing of the past.

It’s true with adults, too. We see bullying in the workplace, or perhaps on the sports-field or the grocery store parking lot, and we don’t like it but we don’t know how to intervene.

In the discussion of bullying—whether children, adolescents, or adults—the key to countering the abuse is motivating bystanders to step in and act in support of the person being bullied.

According to Megan Kelley Hall, co-editor of Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, “The bystander definitely has the power to help change the climate—with adults and children. In bullying cases with children, almost half of all bullying situations stop when a bystander gets involved.” She further explains that getting involved “doesn’t mean taking a stand or getting into the bully’s face, sometimes just the simple act of not giving the bully an audience or just taking the side of the victim is enough to get your point across.”

Helpful and Hurtful Bystanders

The website describes both hurtful and helpful bystanders. The former instigate or encourage the bully, or sometimes they join in once bullying has begun. Sometimes they may not actively support the bullying behavior, but through their passive acceptance they condone the torment and offer the bully the audience he or she craves.

Helpful bystanders assess the situation and then directly intervene by defending the victim or redirecting the situation; or they get help from others present to stand up to or discourage the bully, or report the bullying to someone in authority who can intervene.

Why We Don’t Step Forward

The site also describes some of the reasons why bystanders don’t intervene. Among them:

  • They fear being hurt or becoming the target of the bully themselves;
  • They feel powerless to stop the bully;
  • They think it’s none of their business;
  • They don’t want to draw attention to themselves;
  • They fear retribution;
  • They fear that telling adults won’t help and may make the situation worse;
  • They don’t know what to do.

What to Do

The bystander’s reaction will set the tone for other witnesses and may serve to enlighten the bully without embarrassing or shaming them. Perhaps it will give them a means of exiting the encounter without feeling put down. Maybe—just maybe—it will teach them that there are more effective ways to behave—ways they haven’t learned at home and aren’t likely to. Silence and inaction sustain bullying. Whether the setting is the schoolyard, the workplace, social or recreational situations, or cyberspace, bullying must be nullified. For the vast majority of us who are neither bullied nor bullies, we have the responsibility to step in when we see bullying or other forms of cruelty. We need to say “no more” and model the world as we would like it to be.

It’s good to remember that everyone—bully, victim, and bystander—carries an invisible and heavy load. Perhaps one of the best reasons we are all here on this planet is to help others shoulder the weight of their load—even if we can’t see it and don’t know what it is.

The website offers some excellent advice on what kids should do if they see someone else being bullied. Much of that advice is directly related to kindness. It suggests befriending a child who is being bullied—walk with them, eat lunch with them; involve or extend an invitation to the new kid in school or the kids who often seem to be alone. Don’t try to respond in kind to a bully—don’t fight them, make fun of them, or say mean things back at them—it usually makes things worse.

This is where parents and schools, and even the media, can help. If we have discussions about what to do when we witness bullying, we’ll be better prepared to act, rather than to be paralyzed by fear, confusion, or uncertainty. If kids—or adults—know that they can make a difference and are aware of strategies for intervening, they will be much more likely to do so.

Bullying Is Not a Rite of Passage

Jenny Hulme, author of How to Create Kind Schools, notes that bullying is not and should not be just part of growing up. “Bullying brings no benefits at all—either to the bully or the bullied. It can, instead, trigger a cycle of victimization that can last a lifetime. Studies have shown victims of bullying, including very able children, stand a much lower chance of doing well at school and are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and poor physical health as adults.”

According to Hulme, “Research into ‘bystanding’ demonstrates that people who are given a seminar on compassion, or were empowered to help others, are more likely to go against the majority” and step in to help someone who is being bullied.

Education is Key

Kids need to learn that bullying isn’t cool and it isn’t acceptable. They need to learn it at home, at school, from the media, and from their peers. And kids who are the target of bullies need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with them, and there’s nothing wrong with being different—it’s the bully who has the problem and the bully who needs fixing.

Schools and parents need to take seriously their responsibility to teach kids that it’s not enough not to be a bully, we must all be willing to step in when we see bullying, and let the perpetrator know it’s not acceptable. That takes courage, and courage—like kindness—is a capacity that strengthens with practice.

A Growing Kindness Movement

While unkindness and bullying are rampant, there also seems to be a growing movement to bring awareness of the issue, and growing efforts to both prevent bullying and nurture kindness. And, wisely, it’s often kids who are leading the charge.

Schools all over America—and in many other countries, as well—are building kindness into the curriculum, from K-12. Numerous programs have been launched to counter bullying—many created by and for kids. Among some great resources:

  • Kind Campaign – focused on helping eliminate unkindness between and among girls
  • The Great Kindness Challenge – with educational and “global” sites, it offers strategies and suggestions for practicing kindness in our everyday lives
  • Kidscape – a 30-year old U.K.-based anti-bullying organization focused on preventing bullying and protecting children
  • Bystander Revolution – lots of celebrities involved in this organization formed to counter bullying by focusing on kindness, courage, and inclusion.

As we saw in an earlier post, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” It’s a cycle that must be broken. If you’re a parent, think about having a talk with your child about bullying and help him or her strategize how they will respond the next time they witness bullying. And do the same for yourself—whether you encounter it in the workplace, on the bus, or at a community meeting. Knowing in advance how we want to behave helps us to follow through when the circumstance arises.

Instead of standing by, let’s all stand up for what’s right.

“When we make judgments we’re inevitably acting on limited knowledge, isn’t it best to ask if we seek to understand, or simply let them be?” (Jay Woodman)


2 thoughts on “Choosing Between Bystanding and Standing Up for Kindness

  1. Great post, Donna. This three-part discussion about bullying is both timely and necessary. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis, and for compiling this helpful and hopeful list of solutions and resources.


  2. Thanks so much, Kris. I learned a lot over these last few weeks–including the fact that I’m glad I’m not a kid growing up in the era of social media, where it’s so easy for others to be anonymously cruel.


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