The Most Powerful Person in the Room

As a mom of third-graders I am increasingly aware that the elementary years are a time of discovery through others. When my kids were toddlers and preschoolers I was in touch with everything they did. There was hardly an experience they had I didn’t participate in, orchestrate, or observe. But the elementary years are a gradual fade into independence. My kids get on the school bus at 8:30 in the morning and don’t make it back home until 4:00 in the afternoon. That means for seven and a half hours I do my thing and they do theirs. They can tell me a few tidbits when they get home and we have great conversations over dinner, but there’s no way they can convey all that they learn and experience in my absence. 


It’s in this context that I have begun to talk with my kids about how to care for people and how to stick up for people who need help. These are things I have talked with my kids about since they were toddlers and they’ve been able to practice caring for others within our own family. But it was school that introduced them at large to the dynamics of kids of different ages, from different families, with different values and preferences all coming together and needing to find a way to interact. With school they began to notice that there are some kids no one wants to sit next to on the bus. They noticed that some kids are nice one day and then not so nice the next. And they began to wrestle with their own inclinations to go along with a crowd, to fit in, even if they couldn’t articulate why. Even if it meant treating someone in a way they would never treat them without the influence of others.


I have explained to my kids that when we see someone mistreating someone else, it is a universal tendency to either shrink away from the situation or identify with the bully. Identifying can be as simple as being close enough to speak up and do something, but choosing not to. I believe this identifying takes place because if we outwardly agree with a bully, or do nothing to hinder them, they are unlikely to turn and aim their bullying at us. Identification with a wrongdoer is a form of self-protection.


But I’ve recently gone on to share with my kids who the most powerful person in a bullying situation is: the bystander. The bystander has the power to bolster a bully or pull the rug from underneath. The bystander has the power to change the dynamic of an interaction, to introduce a surprise. A bully is only as powerful as the environment supports. Bystanders are a major part of that environment.


So what can a bystander do?


A bystander can confront the bully. This takes courage and confidence, and is the most blatant way to insert yourself into a bullying situation. But if a bystander has the courage to speak up and say, “You shouldn’t treat him that way. Leave him alone,” that’s a powerful way to let both bully and victim know you’re not going to tacitly abide misconduct.


A bystander can interrupt the confrontation. Any kind of distraction can interrupt the flow of aggression. A bystander can ask a question, make an exclamation, provide a physical barrier if it’s safe to do so, or get the help of a an adult or authority figure. 


A bystander can consciously identify with the victim. This can mean sitting by them on the bus, inviting them to play during recess, or sharing a pencil or a friendly smile in the classroom. As unfair as it is, some kids are easy targets for teasing. Teach you kids to befriend them, show them kindness, and find things in common.


I recognize that bullying is a big issue and there are instances where kids are in real danger of emotional or physical harm. I’m not suggesting we advocate that our children insert themselves into a dangerous situation. But many instances of playground teasing or just plain meanness can be addressed if bystanders are only willing to acknowledge their power and stand up for those not in a position to stand up for themselves. That’s no easy thing to do for children or adults, but the first step is to recognize the power of our own influence. Let’s teach our kids to use their influence for good. Let’s teach them to create an environment that’s safe for us all.