Recently I was at the public library with my two year-old. As she carried an assortment of reading material from Dora to Spider-man, I happened to come across a book titled Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kids Needs to Know about Ending the Cycle of Fear. Wonderfully profound, the book provides an examination of the impact and causes of bullying with a focus on how to empower young people to be proud of who they are and to stand for what they believe is to be morally right and fair. Written by Carrie Goldman, the text begins with Carrie’s reflection on her daughter’s Katie experience with bullying. A victim of bullying because of her liking of Star Wars and everything not traditionally “girly,” Katie who was five years old and in grade one at the time, was consistently and hurtfully mocked for being “different.” It wasn’t until a young boy in her class stood up for her that the momentum of hurtful taunts evolved into acceptance and for Katie the comfort to attend school without the fear of being marginalized for her interests and likes. It was with the help of one young classmate that she found comfort in herself again. In the words of that classmate, “Girls can like Star Wars too.”
Katie’s classmate was heroic in his actions – not timid or afraid to stand up for what he believed to be morally right. Like a Jedi in the Star Wars universe, Katie’s classmate used the force within to bring harmony to a turbulent time – he was not a bystander. “The Bystander Effect,” studied by Bibb Latane and John Darley examines an individual’s response time to an immediate event. For example, the response time to an event where someone falls from their bike in a public setting, is determined by the number of bystanders present – thus each individual bystander remains inactive with the quiet anticipation that someone else will take action. The Bystander Effect brings to life topical discussion not only in terms of psychological and societal behaviour, but also issues surrounding moral code and community responsibility. In regards to a school setting, the understanding of the Bystander Effect is relevant within the anti- bullying conversation, as educators and parents must move to discuss not only the realities surrounding bullying and its victimization but also the need for our young people to be active preventers and responders – not bystanders. This is not to say that my goal is to encourage vigilantism or inspire Spider-Man type heroes to monitor the school hallways or Twitter feeds, but rather for young people to find the hero within and address situations that do not serve the common good and consequentially be proud of who they are and what they believe in. This was Katie’s friend. The question is: How do we as teachers and parents nurture students to stand up for what they believe in – not to be bully or victim?
There is not easy answer to the question above. However, as shared in the text Bullied, peer intervention is the number one detractor for instances of bullying. As such, young people need to be nurtured to be confident, self-aware and courageous. Young people need to be taught that it is important to depend and be given the tools to do so. This could be as simple as being taught to call on an adult when someone is being hurt. Nonetheless, within a social space where interaction is unlimited, the topic of bullying will only intensify. It is our job as parents, teachers and adults, to teach our children not to be bystanders and to treat all peers with respect and stand up for kids like Katie and say “she can like Star Wars if she wants.”