Raising your daughter to be a good "bystander" - by Patti Kelly Criswell, M.S.W.

If you were to ask parents of girls ages seven to nine what they fear most for their daughters over the next few years, many parents would respond with “all the mean girl stuff.” It’s true that bullying among young girls is more prevalent now than ever before. And in this “mind your own business” and “don’t tattle” society, we have created an environment that not only can feel unsupportive for girls but, worse yet, may inadvertently condone bullying.

There is good news. Research shows that when children do speak up, bullying stops much more frequently than when they stay quiet. “Minding your own business” doesn’t solve the problem of bullying—skills do. And you can help. Start by raising your daughter to be a good bystander.

Bystanding is the new buzzword for speaking out against bullying. In schools across the country, bystanding programs are empowering young people to stick up for one another. In some schools, children make a daily pledge to keep their comments kind, appropriate, and necessary. Students are learning to distinguish “ratting” from “reporting,” and there are communication boxes in classrooms that encourage students to share thoughts and to report any bullying they see happening around them.

You can reinforce these programs by talking with your daughter about the two types of bystanding: reporting cruel behavior, and standing up against it.

Knowing when to tell
Reporting cruel behavior is different from tattling. Tattling is done solely for the sake of injuring someone else’s ego or image, whereas reporting is done to protect someone who is being assaulted or hurt by another.

Help your daughter understand that it’s important to be a good bystander for everyone, not just for her friends. If she sees someone who is routinely getting harassed, she should tell an adult who can address the situation. Maybe that adult is you, or a teacher at her school who will hear her out and respect her intent. Your daughter could even write an anonymous note.

By reporting hurtful behavior, your daughter will gain a sense of empowerment. She’ll experience the good feeling that goes along with doing the right thing and helping others. She’ll also develop essential assertiveness skills that she’ll need later on.

Standing up and speaking out
A second way that your daughter can be a good bystander is by literally standing up to the bully with words such as “What are you doing?” or “How would you like it if someone said that to you?” Speaking out may seem like an emotional risk, but when children are empowered in early elementary school to speak out, the level of risk is much lower than it will be a few years down the road. Chances are, if your daughter is able to stand up to a bully in second grade, she’ll be able to in seventh, when the stakes are higher.

But will the bully turn on your daughter and start to harass her? Social scientists tell us that bullies are drawn to those whose power they can take away, which makes good bystanders somewhat “bully-proof.” Also, there’s power in numbers. Good bystanders tend to be and have loyal friends. The odds of a bully turning on a bystander are significantly lower when the bystander has peer support, so it’s worth it for your daughter to spread the word about the need to speak up.

On the home front
The best training for positive conflict resolution happens at home. Here’s how you can make bystanding behavior a part of your family routine:

• Model kind behavior. When children hear parents gossip or say negative things about others, they come to believe that it’s O.K. Gossip is just one step away from cruelty. So first and foremost, make sure that you’re setting a good example of kindness toward others.

Be a good bystander yourself. If you hear your daughter and a friend talking negatively about others, intervene and say, “Hey, guys, that’s gossip” (as if to say kindly, “You know better”). In conversations with your daughter, point out the difference between talking about events or school or things that are troubling her and flat-out gossiping.

Work hard to establish rules of kindness between siblings. If a behavior is simply not acceptable at home, it is much less likely to be seen on the playground. Discourage tattling while encouraging reporting, and help siblings make amends when something hurtful has been said or done.

Teaching your daughter to be a good bystander, to feel empathy toward others, and to stand up for what she believes in just makes sense. On a personal level, you teach your daughter skills that will last a lifetime, but on a larger level, you ensure that she is part of the solution. There truly is power in numbers, and we can make the world a safer place for girls. Teach her to speak up now, and we’ll all benefit later.


Patti Kelley Criswell is the author of several books from American Girl, including Stand Up for Yourself & Your Friends and A Smart Girl’s Guide to Friendship Troubles. She is a social worker in private practice, specializing in adolescent and family counseling.