How do you prepare your kids to stand up for themselves — and for other kids?

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By: Lotzman KatzmanCC BY 2.0
I recently watched this video about a twelve-year-old being bullied on the bus. The child in question didn’t tell his mom what happened, but she found out from other parents later that day. No one else on the bus stood up for her kid or helped him out, but one of the kids did capture the bullying on video.

Even though my child is four, it had me thinking about when she’s school-aged and potentially in a similar situation. If she witnesses bullying my hope is that she would feel empowered enough to stand up for the child in trouble, and if she’s the kid being bullied I hope she feels confident enough to tell me about it.

How are you talking to your kid about standing up for themselves — and for others? — Meg

This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed bullying on Offbeat Mama — you can see our archive here.

Comments on How do you prepare your kids to stand up for themselves — and for other kids?

  1. We’re pretty laid back around here, so if the kid talks about the usual teasing and crappiness that happens on the bus, her dad usually says, “Well, did you tell him he was being an ass hole?”

    I truly don’t know what we would do about the relentless, systematic bullying some kids suffer, but I think she would tell us because she knows we’ll be on her side but we won’t overreact. Most of the teasing she endures is because she jumps in when someone else is in trouble, which I feel pretty good about, even though I know it’s ’cause she’s miss bossy-britches.

  2. I think it’s mostly about raising kids with a strong sense of self and integrity and modelling that behaviour so that they feel comfortable standing up for what they believe in – which is a pretty standard thing that parents try to do.
    It can be really hard to be the person who stands up to a bully. It’s kind of like being a whistle blower – and adults have a tough time with that one.
    An attempt to stand up to a bully isn’t always successful in making the bully change either and sometimes the person who tries it just draws the bully’s attention to them.
    It might also help to provide opportunities for them to have a multifaceted life so that their friends at school aren’t their only group of friends. That way, if they stand up to the “order of things” at school and it results in them becoming a target of bullies, they have another social outlet. This could prevent the “everybody hates me” feeling that you can get when you find yourself at the bottom of the social pecking order.

    • I completely agree with your last point. I was horribly bullied in middle school, and my involvement in music and sports outside of school was a lifesaver.

  3. I think parents can also model this behavior for their children. As parents, do we say/do something when one adult is treating another adult poorly? If we don’t, we probably can’t expect that our children will intervene when another kid is being treated poorly.
    I’m not saying that modeling the behavior is enough in and of itself, but I do think that our actions play a major role in showing kids how to be in the world.

    • In our household I’m the one who stands up to bullies, but my husband considers that the risk is too great.

      We’ve had some terrible things happen in our country where people have gone to another person’s aid when they are being assulted in public, and have ended up being killed themselves. I guess in those cases the person trying to help should have called the police. But these cases are why my husband doesn’t think it is ever safe to stand up. My husband and I don’t agree on when it is safe to stand up so we’d be confusing role models for kids.

      Standing up to bullying doesn’t have to be confrontational- going to get help could a good option.

  4. I definitely think that modeling this behavior for our kids can go a long way. As well as encouraging open and involved discusions on the topic…I don’t ever want my son to be the kind of person to start fights or bully others, but I do want him to know that it’s a good thing to defend himself and others if it’s necessary.

  5. Have you heard about the Safe School Ambassador program? They teach kids that are bystanders to work with their friends (the aggressors) to make better decisions. They are at schools across the US. Check and see if your local school has the program.

    Many times kids want to speak up but they’re not sure how to do it (like most of us). It’s important that we talk with our kids and do role plays to give them a chance to process potential situations and outcomes.

    • I agree with this. Well, maybe not the role plays part. I always hated those as a child. I found them awkward and so unlike any actual real situation that they didn’t actually help at all. But I agree that it can be hard to know what to say, in the moment and that talking about ideas ahead of time can help.

  6. Superheroes and other favorite movie/tv/book characters are awesome for this. My kid is under 2, but when I’ve nannied older kids I’ve used enthusiasm for a particular movie (“Spiderman is soooo awesome!”) to generate conversation about standing up for what’s right. “Why is Spiderman a hero?” “Do you think he stands up for people because it’s easy, or because it’s right?” “How can we be heroes in real life?”

    • Jill, that’s brilliant, and I hadn’t thought of it before. Superheroes that stick up for the oppressed is an excellent example of how to handle situations like these.

      My mother and father never really taught us much of anything about how to handle bullying and I know I suffered horribly. I made sure my younger brother didn’t suffer as much by beating the living crap outta anyone who so much as mocked him. It only takes one or two of those encounters to teach ALL the kids to leave someone alone!

      I was taunted all through school and my mom just always said “why do you CARE what those people think of you. They’re not as smart as you and they’re probably jealous” This was of NO help whatsoever in jr high. I think the relentless teasing and exclusions in my school kept me from developing a high sense of self esteem. I mean, I’m okay now, I’m a grown ass woman, etc, but I still don’t think I’m pretty enough, and never have. Thanks so much school bullies and assorted mean girls!

      • I was bullied as a kid too, Miranda, and it’s awful. It still has a serious effect on how I respond to criticism! Hopefully the culture will change where the kids who do the bullying are the ones who are reviled as opposed to the targets – if an adult systematically harassed another adult (or just plain acted like an asshole) no one would put up with it, let alone take their side. Teaching kids not to be bystanders but upstanders is a great first step.

      • I got the same kind of “peptalk” when I was being relentlessly bullied. My mom would either tell me, “what does it matter what they say?” or “well, that’s what kids do, it sucks but that’s what you go through when your in school.” The older I got the more she started to tell me why I was asking for it. Those years of mean girls and guys definitely shredded my self-esteem.

        My son is really particular about things have to be. He gets really upset when things are out of order and doesn’t adapt well to change, especially when playing games with his friends. If things get really bad we try to ask him for examples of his feelings when people yell at him and remind him that’s how they feel when he gets upset. My boyfriend, who is a big dude, has even asked him for examples of when he felt like he saw mommy or dude bullying people, or trying to push them around. Then we reinforce that we don’t due that because even though we’re big and tough, we avoid conflict as much as humanly possible. The kid is incredibly empathetic and that’s usually enough to make him want to apologize and try harder to stay calm.

  7. You know, this is how I gained one of my closest friends, aged 11…

    For the first few days at high school, I kept company with the girls who later took their place as the popular kids. There was a (shy) girl in the class who chose to sit on her own in class on that first day and, for that reason alone, the girls I had sat with decided to single her out. They teased her and spread rumours that she had diseases (???) and that is why she had to sit alone.

    I was curious about her (I didn’t buy the disease thing!) – and felt sorry for her – but to talk to her was social suicide. Seriously, whatever imaginary disease she had, you wouldn’t want them to say you had caught it….!

    A few days into the first month of school, I saw her sitting alone at lunch and just felt so sorry for her – I broke free from my group of friends and sat with her. I remember their faces now – horrified! Well, she was funny and we liked a lot of the same things. After lunch, I held my head up high and I sat with her in class, too. My choice.

    Cue 5 years of being bullied myself as well……

    There were certainly times during my school career when I regretted choosing my friend (and doing the right thing) over popularity. I wanted to be popular so much and I could have been…. I chose standing up for her over having cool friends, I chose standing up for her over being picked for the sports teams, I chose standing up for her over ever having a boyfriend in school….

    Now, 20 years later, I’m so glad I made that decision. I’m grateful to awkward, shy, but brave 11 year old me for “being the better person” and standing up for this girl – as it gave me the gift of a wonderful friend who I’m closer to now than ever.

    But as for what I hope my children will do. I…. I don’t know. I want them to be strong and to stand up for people who need support. I want them to be good human beings. But do I want them to go through what I did?? I don’t know. I want their school career to be easy and fun…..

    Really good question – it’s given me something to really think about!

  8. Perception is an important part of bullying that is hard to talk about. I’m a teacher at a small school–we have 24 students aged between 11 and 17. A lot of these kids ended up at our school because they were being bullied or just didn’t fit in. But something that I see again and again are these kids picking on each other. Smart, funny, talented kids making fun of other kids for being “dumb” or not getting it quickly enough. However, the kids doing the bullying at my school have a perception of themselves as bullied, so they have a really hard time viewing their behavior as aggressive and bullying. It has lead to some interesting conversations in class where I try to lead them back through the whole interaction to get to the root of the problem. This can be really helpful–it can also blow up in my face, but I think it’s important for kids to see how they can take on both roles–bully and bullied.

  9. I was bullied in school as well, and one of the biggest problems for me was feeling like even when my friends had my back, teachers did not give a shit. In fact, they often didn’t believe me when I reported bullying, and those who did just smiled sadly and apologized. As a teacher now, I think it is crucial for teachers, administrators, coaches, and anyone else in a mentoring position to be part of the solution. I’m not saying we are responsible for single-handedly fixing things, but teachers set the tone of a classroom, and if something happens that breaks a school rule – which for almost every district, bullying does – they are responsible for stepping up. Telling a child to “go to an adult” doesn’t work forever, but making sure your child knows the school policies about bullying, and has some safe people in the school he or she can talk to adds a definite layer of defense. Talk to the teacher! It’s shocking what parents see that teachers don’t, and vice versa.

  10. This is a topic I’ve thought long and hard about even before becoming pregnant. I was severely bullied in school. To the point that I feared for my safety at times and became truent every new semester for staying home from school. When I talked to teachers about it or when they would see my locker covered in horrible things in permanent marker I was told I “asked for it.” I was never given the same basic rights all other students had, and for what? Because I had purple hair and didn’t listen to the backstreet boys? It still affects me to this day, like others have said my self esteem was destroyed. I never want my child to go through what I did….. On the other hand I want him to become himself no matter the consequences. It’s such a hard battle to fight, to just be yourself in high school. I plan on having many conversations with my future son about being himself, and ALWAYS standing up for others. I’m not sure if that will include stories of my own experiences or not. All I know is I want to raise my son to be strong in his convictions and be there for him if that means painful high school years.

  11. As an educator-to-be, it’s super important to be aware of what you model as parents. Talking shit about coworkers you dislike at home normalizes bullying behavior, so does watching shows that pick on people’s clothes or choices (e!talk, anyone). Another really important step is for schools to drop zero tollerance policies; while I don’t necessarily condone hitting, students shuldn’t get in trouble for standing up for themselves. In addition, consequences need to be immediate, appropriate and backed up at home; parents often feel insulted or surprised when they find out their child is a bully but they need to be onboard for consequences like suspensions and councelling to work.

  12. I haven’t read through all the comments, so forgive me if this was already mentioned, but I am thinking of switching pre-schools for my son and the new one follow’s Becky Bailey‘s “Conscious Discipline” method. I hadn’t heard about it before, but it seems a good approach to building kids self-confidence so that they aren’t as susceptible to bullying.

  13. I was never bullied. EVER. The reason had to everything do with how I carried myself and how I had no fear.

    The interesting thing was that it was completely due to being abused at home. No kids could ever scare me the way my father did.

    I, obviously, don’t want my son to learn this way but he will know (1) his body is his own and (2) I will always stand up for him with the school if he needs to defend himself.

    • May I ask : can you clarify ?

      In my class from 14yo to 18yo, one particular girl was bullied. It started when a mean girl mocked the way a teacher had mispronounced the victim’s name on the first day of class.

      It never really stopped : as Eric Hoffer said, our sense of power is more vivid when we break a man’s spirit than when we win his heart.

      Is it really the victim’s fault for ‘not carrying herself’ the right way ?
      Or did I miss the point of your post ? English is not my first language.

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