Kids Need to Know Inaction Can Be Action

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(The Vancouver Sun, July 30, 2001)

Q: Last weekend, I took my seven-year-old son and his friend to a nearby park. While we were there, we witnessed a couple of older kids get into a violent fight. Within minutes there were easily a dozen kids gathered around watching. I yelled at them to stop and we ran to call for help. What I found almost as disturbing as the fight, was everyone’s willingness to just stand around watching. What’s up with kids these days?

Teresa and Saleema: We are just as disturbed as you are at the idea of people (kids and adults) standing around watching someone being victimized. Unfortunately, however, passive bystanders have been around for years. Just think back to high school watching that 3:00pm fight behind the portable. Sure, we didn’t mean to contribute to the violence– we had no idea at the time that our silence gave consent. We also like to assume that, with so many people witnessing the incident, someone must have called for help—in psychological lingo, known as diffusion of responsibility. Although in recent years we have made huge strides in teaching children and teens about peer victimization, the responsibility of bystanders is often overlooked. Children need to be aware that inaction is action, and silence is speech. Watching victimization happen is condoning it.

Don’t get us wrong–being a responsible bystander does not necessarily mean stepping into a crowd of people and putting one’s own safety at risk. Besides, we certainly understand that the reason why "kids these days" are so afraid of intervening is because the consequences go beyond just being called a rat or a tattletale. Why not teach more covert ways of reporting as an option? For example, many of the schools we visit are using creative ways to empower students to report safely. Some have "bullying hotlines" to enable witnesses to anonymously leave reports by phone. Others use e-mail to do this, and still others have devised programs to reward responsible reporting. Add to the fear of retaliation the alarming rate at which young people have been desensitized to violence through television, music (Eminem—need we say more?), movies and video games. Maybe that’s the real issue: If the fights our kids are watching weren’t nearly as violent as the video game they’re going home to play, why would they see it as a big enough deal to report in the first place?