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Teaching Our Kids Not to Be Bystanders to Bullying

Most kids on today’s campuses probably fall into the category of “bystander.” They know they should probably do something, but they don’t.

Teaching Our Kids Not to Be Bystanders to Bullying

“I feel guilty about it every day,” he told the crowd, a little choked by his own words.

The church youth group was captivated by Blake’s vulnerability.

Blake seemed like a normal high school kid: decent grades, a soccer player, and from a good home. But this particular young man was obviously plagued with guilt.

“I saw him being made fun of every day,” he said, “and I did nothing to stop it.”

Blake went on to share about how the two of them used to be really good friends. They went to the same school, hung out at recess, and went to each other’s birthday parties.

But then came middle school. In middle school you’re judged by who you hang out with, and Blake’s friend was definitely on the nerdy side. Blake’s new soccer friends noticed this and began making fun of him.

“Is he your friend?”

“Why are you hanging out with him?”

So Blake cut off his relationship with his friend.

The situation took a turn for the worse. By high school, Blake’s athletic friends began regularly hurling insults at his old friend during lunch or in gym class. Blake never chimed in. He just watched in silence.

Blake confessed that he could still picture the look on his friend’s face. He was haunted by the image.

As I heard Blake’s story I winced, because I knew the story well.

Blake’s old friend was my son.

Peer Intervention

Blake was never a bully. He was the dictionary definition of a bystander, someone who watches and does nothing. Most kids on today’s campuses probably fall into this category.

But bystanders hurt others just the same. It’s a sin of omission. They know they should probably do something, but they don’t.

We need to equip bystanders to advocate for kids who are bullied. I firmly believe today’s young people are the cure for bullying. I speak to younger people at countless events encouraging and equipping them to stop bullying at the outbreak.

Bystanders don’t need to do what their name implies: stand by. They can stand up and do something.

When bystanders stand up and do something, it’s called peer intervention. I use the term peer intervention because those two words have become buzzwords in bullying research as researchers have come to realize how much difference one kid can make.

We can help our kids truly make a bullying breakthrough by teaching them the 5 Rs:

1. Recognize the effects of bullying

Much recent research has revealed that increased screen time is slowly killing empathy. The more people stare at screens and communicate using screens, the more socially hindered they become. We need to help young people look up from their screens, notice others, and think beyond their own little world.

Whenever I speak to young people about bullying, I always tell plenty of stories. Stories help us all look beyond our own perspective and see through the eyes of others. Stories cultivate compassion and empathy.

Parents and teachers can raise awareness by talking about the effects of bullying and sharing stories that help young people consider the perspective of others. Many bystanders have never paused to think through the ramifications of laughing at someone, teasing them … or watching and doing nothing.

2. Realize you can make a huge impact.

One kid can make a huge difference. Really. Just one.

Countless studies show that one friend is enough to prevent the downward slide toward depression.

A report in the journal Development and Psychopathology revealed, “Just one friend is enough to buffer an anxious, withdrawn child against depression. And it doesn’t have to be a particularly close friend—not an intimate or a confidant, as an adult would understand it, just some kind of social connection with someone their own age.”

We need to help our kids understand just how powerful their simple acts of friendship can be.

Maybe a peer steps in and says, “Hey, that’s not okay.” Or if that’s too risky, maybe they approach the victim later and say, “Would you like to talk?” Those simple gestures are by far the most effective in helping those experiencing bullying.

3. Resolve not to bully others.

Most movements begin with a decision, a commitment, a “resolve.” I think of Daniel in the Bible when he was plucked from the safety of his home and plopped down into a world brimming with temptations. He made a decision, a commitment. He “resolved not to defile himself” (Daniel 1:8).

Whenever I speak to today’s young people, I give them the opportunity to make a public commitment. It’s one thing to be moved with compassion. Commitment puts feet to those feelings.

Compassion without action is nothing.

Resolve is the decision to take actions. Which brings us to specific actions kids can take…

4. Refuse to join in.

One of the most important actions in which kids can engage is in not engaging.

Bystanders have the ability and responsibility to avoid any behaviors that build up bullies by tearing down others. Bullies thrive on attention and affirmation. Give them neither.

So help bystanders learn to avoid the following:

  • Laughing at jokes at the expense of others
  • Listening to rumors, gossip, or hate speech from anyone
  • Physically standing with a group that is mocking or gossiping about others

Refusing to join doesn’t always necessitate speaking up or saying, “Hey, this isn’t okay.” Sometimes bystanders can walk away, or in class they can just keep their attention on their schoolwork.

If bullies don’t receive any affirmation or attention for their mean behavior, they’ll usually stop said behavior.

5. Reach out to someone who is hurting or alone.

The best bullying advice I have ever heard comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the Bible:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5)

Can you imagine if everyone actually lived out this advice? We could cut down on a whole lot of bullying for sure! It’s amazing what simple acts of kindness can do. But these acts are rare. Kids are all about “mine!” Put out two pieces of cake for your two kids and both will grab for the bigger piece. It’s uncommon to find a kid who genuinely offers the bigger piece to their brother or sister.

At school it’s the same. Kids typically value self above others, not the inverse.

But this generation of young people really wants to do something and make a difference. Often, they just don’t know how. It’s an interesting tension. They’re self-centered, but want to help others. Sometimes a caring adult can help connect the dots by showing how to get from A to B.

What would it look like to invite that awkward kid over to hang out after school … knowing full well that it might be awkward?

Passages like the one from Philippians 2 are impactful as we teach our kids how to reach out. Be humble. Consider others better than you. This is what Jesus modeled.

Showing humility and valuing others above self are concepts kids don’t spend much time thinking about, but you’ll be surprised how much kids will rise up when given the opportunity to demonstrate these values.

Bystanders don’t just have to “stand by.” One friend really does make a difference.


Excerpted from The Bullying Breakthrough, copyright © 2018 by Jonathan McKee. Used with permission of Shiloh Run Press, an Imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc. 

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