Stand Up Against Bullies

John Bailey
6 min readMar 9, 2021

Why don’t kids stand up against bullies (for others) more often?

At every anti-bullying and “safe schools” meeting I’ve attended, and in every anti-bullying pamphlet I’ve read, and in many posters I’ve seen the adults consistently say something:

“We must teach children to stand up against bullies for the sake of others.”

This demonstrates just how out-of-touch the adults really are.

A school-yard underling challenges the authority of a bully, and as they get beaten for their trouble, others stand around — or record it for upload to YouTube. Often, laughter is heard on the video. And, the YouTube comments are mocking — of the victim.

Adults are often horrified by this, but I’m a bit confused at how they could be, given the way adults behave and how they’ve organized society to create exactly this behavior.

For instance, anyone who fails to cower before a police officer risks getting beaten and/or tasered. When video of this is broadcast on YouTube, people comment laughingly about how anyone stupid enough not to cow before authority “deserves a beating”.

When someone notices wrongdoing and “stands up” in the adult world, we call it “whistleblowing”. Although we have laws to supposedly protect such people, in reality those people are almost universally persecuted and crushed by the machinery of corporations or the State.

For instance, Joe Darby, the Army reservist who blew the whistle on torture at Abu Ghraib, had been assured of anonymity, but was outed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — exposing him and his family to abuse and threats so severe his entire family had to go into hiding for years.

People who express dissenting political opinion — from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wallstreet — are universally repressed by governments. And, if you check the comments beneath video of police blatantly abusing and beating dissenters, you’ll see that bucking the structure of power is not only physically dangerous, it usually doesn’t gain any social capital, either.

For instance, in the USA, Occupy protesters were wantonly pepper sprayed and beaten. Again, the YouTube comments are mostly derisive, like suggestions for the dissenters to “get a job”.

At every level, from a child disagreeing with Mommy — to one nation wanting the same military toys as another — we demonstrate to our children that “standing up” is one of the most unwise things a person can do. We spend a great deal of time and effort training them to NOT disagree with authority. And, we demonstrate “authority” as based on larger, stronger, better-armed, and generally more aggressive.

So, our children do not as they have been told, but as they have been shown. When there’s a beat-down of someone who broke social order, they reach for the cell-phone-camera, and laugh as they watch the balance of power being enforced — just they watch police beating protesters and America bombing third-world countries.

Still, the adults seem dumbfounded…

Of the eight major factors scientifically linked to evil behavior, the above examples touch on four:

  1. Obedience to authority
  2. Unjust systems
  3. Power & control
  4. Moral disengagement

For distressing examples of how susceptible adults are to obeying arbitrary authority, Google the famous Milgram Experiment, or watch this (disturbing) video:

It is important to comprehend how “standing up” means dissenting against the power-enforced social order — whether one is speaking out against a school yard bully, the abusive cop, corporate abuse of workers, or imperialistic wars and torture. And, we’ve mostly taught our youth NOT to do that.

Two more of the eight major factors scientifically linked to evil behavior are linked to group issues:

  1. Anonymity — usually by acting in a group
  2. Group pressure — going along with the group

Anonymity is pretty obvious, and applies more to a participant of bullying than to a bystander. The second is much more powerful than we imagine — and can operate to endanger the very life of the conformist. Check out this video showing how well adults do with conformity to group pressure:

We also have to account for the influence of the Bystander Effect in an emergency situation the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely any of them are to help. The bystander effect relies partly on another of the factors of evil: Diffusion of responsibility — or exactly what parents, teachers, police and administrators all say about bullying “Someone (else) should do something about this.” Here’s a shocking video experiment demonstrating the Bystander Effect:

Below is an informal bullying experiment. Notice that the more people around the less one of them speaks up. This is the bystander effect at work.

The bystander effect is something we must be aware of and consciously work to overcome. Only by understanding our own natural tendencies can we improve our performance in the real world. An understanding of the bystander effect is part of basic Motivational Literacy.

What Can I do?

First, recognize that it’s more complicated, both socially and behaviorally, than the trite, simplistic slogans we hear.

Second, realize that by asking for “stand up” action, what you’re really asking for is that children think critically, demand sound justifications, and refuse to conform whenever they perceive that rules or actions don’t match their ethical feelings or logical standards. (Be careful what you ask for).

Third, take action in modeling the behavior you expect of them. If you can’t do it — don’t do it as a matter of course — how can you even suggest for them to? Your stand-up begins by standing up for children’s rights:

  • to question authority
  • to politely demand complete, sensible, and fair justifications for things
  • not to be asked — or subjected — to hypocrisy in rules or enforcement
  • to be fully vested with basic human rights: privacy, security of persons and effects, and due process.
  • to exercise the fundamental human right of self-preservation (self-defense), when necessary, and without fearing or being subject to punishment for their survival instinct.

Demand that zero-tolerance for self-defense and other such “institution and conformity first” models be reversed. Research shows that such oppressive environments increase, rather than decrease hostility and violence. Demand that schools follow science in this area — rather than liability-abatement (bureaucrat-protection).

Here are just a half-dozen specific things you can teach your children — and provide them good examples for:

  1. Teach children to disobey authority that is unjust. They must learn to distinguish between authority that is based on expertise and sound justifications for actions and outcomes — and authority based on demands and force. Only through this path will children break from brutish authority or mindless group to do the right thing.
  2. Teach children to appreciate human diversity, and to disagree with stereotyping and labeling — because those things have a de-humanizing effect, reducing our natural inhibition against violence (more details on this in a future post).
  3. Teach children to learn the names of every person they meet. This promotes an environment of connection, spreads feelings of esteem, and raises natural inhibitions against violence. This important social skill offers powerful rewards throughout life.
  4. Teach children to admit mistakes or change their opinion based on new evidence. This helps them learn to break free from a course toward bigger problems merely because they don’t want to admit a smaller error. Adults MUST model this by doing it themselves.
  5. Teach children to value their independence at least as much as they value their belonging to a group — that there are times their own ideas should lead them to leave a group. Teach them that they will always have access to a different group. Model that behavior — for instance by quitting a job where unethical practices are in play.
  6. Teach children personal accountability for their actions and outcomes– even to small things. This is best done by modeling it yourself: Give that extra change back to the store clerk.