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Bystander guilt: How do we ensure our kids have the courage to act?

Maybe everyone has a story like this. Once, when I was living in London, I was sitting on the top deck of a bus on my way to darkest Hackney. Minding my own business (this becomes crucial.)

Four young men in their late teens or early 20s sat in the very back row. They hurled insults at each other, which was entertainment enough – at first. Then they began tossing pieces of their fried-chicken dinners at the other passengers.

I rolled my eyes and hunkered down in my seat, along with everyone else. A tourist – a German, judging by his accent – turned around and told them to stop. The boys rose as one, as if they'd been waiting for this moment. They stood over the man and screamed threats at him until he turned away from them, arms folded.

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Still no one did anything. The boys then spotted a young woman sitting by herself near the front of the bus. They began taunting her, a stream of really vile sexual abuse. She sat there, hands clasped between her knees, her face getting redder and redder. No one did a thing to help her – me included.

I was very pregnant at the time, so I had the heft – moral and physical – to intervene. But I remember thinking, "Oh for God's sake, why can't someone else do something? One of these Londoners should step in." This is ape-level ethical reasoning, because, of course, they were all thinking the same thing.

After a few moments of torment, the young woman bolted downstairs and off the bus. The idiots crowed in triumph. The rest of us – if I can extrapolate from my own experience – felt shame for a long time afterward. I often think of that girl and how she must have been furious at the boys, but also at us, her fellow passengers, who didn't even offer her the most basic human kindness.

I've been thinking about her more this week, with the fallout from the Steubenville, Ohio, rape case. Two high-school athletes were convicted of assaulting a teenaged girl, but also complicit were the many other kids who witnessed the boys' behaviour toward the drunken victim or watched video of the girl being mocked. The business of watching and not acting seemed almost as monstrous as the act itself. (You can read more about the psychology of onlooker apathy in my colleague Erin Anderssen's piece in Focus today.)

How do we raise children who aren't bystanders, especially when the technology in their lives makes it so much easier to be a voyeur than an actor? A good starting point is Emily Bazelon's terrific and contrarian new book about bullying, Sticks and Stones.

She argues persuasively that bullying isn't an epidemic, that it's usually much more complicated than we imagine and that clear-cut heroes and villains are hard to find.

More can be done to educate bystanders, Ms. Bazelon writes. Almost 90 per cent of bullying incidents have witnesses, but only 20 per cent of the time does a kid step in to help; when they do, the bullying stops in half the cases. But it's very hard for kids to make that leap. They have more to lose – status, friends, teeth – while we would only suffer embarrassment.

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The ones who don't step in often end up suffering "bystander guilt." They know there was more they could have done. They may even have wanted to, but they didn't know how to go about it. As one high-school girl glumly told Ms. Bazelon after a particularly tragic incident, "it was a moral failure of, like, the whole community."

While Ms. Bazelon is no fan of heaping on parental guilt, she clearly lays out where change has to begin: at home, where kids hear their parents preach tolerance, then witness "fighting and power plays among the adults they know." In other words, being good to each other instead of just talking about it. "We have to instill in kids the paramount value of kindness – to show them that it's more important to come together than to finish first, that other people's feelings can take precedence over one's own, that relationships can matter more than tasks."

That might sound a bit kumbaya, but is there any alternative? Children are born with Hemingway's merde detector, and they know exactly when their parents are preaching one thing and practising another. And yes, since you ask, I'm very glad my kids weren't around to witness my shortcomings on that bus.

As it is, they are exquisitely tuned to all the frequencies of bullying. There is a constant Tokyo Rose drone of anti-cruelty propaganda delivered at school, so perhaps things will change. One of the mothers in my son's Grade 6 class e-mailed to tell me that he'd stood up for her daughter, who was being pestered by another kid. My son never mentioned it, because he's an 11-year-old boy. When I tried to praise him, he brushed it off. But at least I got the satisfaction of knowing the apple's fallen a good distance from the tree.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More


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