Last fall, 11-year-old Kalen Thigpen started sixth grade in Bolingbrook, Illinois, with his best friends, Mark*. Everyday, they ate lunch at their new middle school with old and new buddies, and every day, everyone made fun of Mark. “I think our friends were showing off for the new kids, but it was really happening a lot,” Kalen says. “I hated seeing Mark almost crying.” SO instead of standing by and doing nothing, Kalen did something. “I said, ‘Hey, what you’re doing isn’t funny. I’ve seen people tease you and I know you didn’t like it. So if you want to sit here with me and Mark you’ll have to just stop.” And then it was over. Just like that, the taunting ceased.
Kalen’s mom, Kathy Thigpen, had no idea any of this happened until Mark’s mother called her. “She wanted to thank me for Kalen being such a good guy,” says Thigpen. “When she told me what he did, we were both in tears.”
There’s a word to describe kids like Kalen: Upstanders. They’re the ones who find the courage and confidence to step up and help someone who’s being teased, bullied, or just plain treated unfairly. They know what’s right, and they do what they can to make it happen.
Some kids, like Kalen, may seem born knowing how to watch out for others. But rest assured, there’s an up stander-in-waiting inside every child. “This type of positive behavior has nothing to do with temperament,” says Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. “It’s a skill that can be nurtured and developed.” Ready to boost your child’s stand-up-itude? Here’s how:
Build a Foundation of Empathy.
“Children who are up standers tend to really feel for others,” says Borba. Set the expectation that in your family, you help—you don’t hurt. Volunteering is a great way to instill that value, and it’s important to put the kibosh on teasing between sibs. The point: It’s not ok to treat anyone poorly—even if he’s your little brother who has to love you no matter what.
Take a Minute Before You Rescue Your Child.
And not just from a conflict with another kid, but any challenging situation. “If he’s always used to someone doing the talking for him, he won’t be bale to do it for himself,” says Borba. When kids have the chance to work through a problem on their own, they build confidence in their abilities. That’s the power they’ll draw upon when faced with the decision to step in or back out.
Show Kids Many Ways to Help.
Most kids need to know that there are lots of ways they can make a difference: They can come forward to stand next to someone being bullied to let her know she’s not alone. They can reach out afterward to see how she’s doing or to encourage her to tell someone what’s going on. They can leave the scene and get an adult. The very act of leaving can be powerful: “Bullies want attention, status, and power,” says Shira Lee Katz, director of digital learning for Common Sense Media, which has developed an online program to teach families anti-bullying strategies. Without an audience, they lose all three. No matter where your child starts, chances are that once he sees the difference he can make, he’ll do it again and again.
If being relentlessly teased in real life is humiliating, getting taunted online can be absolutely devastating. That’s because digital messages spread like wildfire, says Common Sense Media’s Shira Lee Katz. You’re not just embarrassed in front of the handful of kids who happened to be passing by—you can be cut down in front of the entire school. The results, as too many headlines have shown, can be tragic. To help end a cycle of attacks, kids old enough to use the internet can post something encouraging on the target’s Facebook wall, or make a public statement in a chat room or other form of social media: Anything to show that they care, they understand what’s happening—and that it’s very much not okay—can help. Visit commonsensemedia.org to find a comprehensive guide to helping your child be a good digital citizen.
*Name has been changed.
Has your family been affected by bullying? Share your story in the comments.