How do you talk to your child about “snitching” on bullies?
Recently, this video surfaced of a 12-year-old being bullied — singled out and punched by two brothers — on a school bus in Phoenix. When the child came home, “He seemed down, but didn’t tell me what had happened,” said his mom, Tiffany Hunter. She found out about it because she received a barrage of emails, calls and texts from other parents who’d heard about the incident from their kids when they got home. No one seemed to stand up for her son at the time (including the bus driver), but thankfully a child on the bus took a video with his or her cell phone. (The two brothers were suspended from school as a result.)
There are a few things going on here. One, it seems that bullying on school buses has reached new, dizzying heights — or is perhaps finally being reported on when it happens (thanks in part to cell phone cameras). From bus monitor Karen Klein in New York state last year to various other incidents that have taken place across the country, it seems like the bullying behavior is growing steadily worse. I’m not sure what the complete answer is to keeping our kids safe on the bus ride to and from school, but I do think video monitoring is helping to expose what’s going on.
The other piece of the equation is the question of “snitching.” Kids don’t want to “tattle” on other students, especially after after the age of 5 or 6 when they start being seen as a “tattle tale” by other children. Instead, they hold it in. Often, they feel embarrassment and shame over a situation they didn’t cause. The scary part is that when this happens, kids can easily start to feel powerless to change things.
While cell phone videos and the like are providing a “witness” for these acts, how can we more effectively root out this behavior in the first place? On her blog at Psychcentral.com, Katherine Prudente cites a New York Metro slogan regarding terrorism: “When you see something, say something.” She encourages kids who see someone targeted to ask the person if they’re okay afterward. “Encourage the target to talk to an adult — or step in and stand up for the target.” (Though she acknowledges it’s much easier said than done.) “If you can let the targeted student know they are not alone, it’ll help them feel less scared and perhaps they will be able to feel empowered to advocate for himself/herself.”
Bullying Prevention Expert and author of Say Something Peggy Moss has advice for both kids and their parents. First, the good news: “Most schools do a pretty good job these days of teaching kids to distinguish between ‘telling on’ someone (‘snitching’ ) and ‘reporting,'” says Moss. “I let kids know that when you report, you’re providing information to get help or prevent someone from getting hurt. (Even if that someone is you). ”
Moss’s advice for kids: “Bullies don’t want other kids to report out. They may even threaten you to keep you quiet. But don’t for one minute think that your silence will keep you safe. Silence doesn’t keep anyone safe — it never has, and it never will. Tell someone. If that person doesn’t pay attention, tell someone else. Tell adults — people who can and will take action. If you are scared, make sure you tell the adult that, too. You are a reporter –give the adults you tell the information they need to take action on your behalf.”
Her advice for Adults: “If a kid tells you something and says, ‘Please don’t say anything because I’ll get in trouble,’ please don’t promise that you’ll keep silent and then break that promise. You may seriously injure trust with your child or the child who has come to you. Instead, be transparent — explain who you are going to talk to and why. Give your child some choices. Do they want to be there? Do they want to NOT be there? Do not steal their control of the situation, but make clear that if they have come to you feeling unsafe, you are going to take steps to make them safer. Chances are, they will be able to tell you which people at school actually have power to make change, and who will listen. And chances are they will be right.”
In our house, we tell our 9-year-old son to talk to us immediately when something happens. Truth? Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t. (A telling example: I was watching the above video today when he and his friend were playing nearby. They overheard the clip and said, “Yeah, nobody wants to be a snitch.”)
Most of the time, I rely on my gut to tell me if something’s going on, and I try to ask open questions. “What kind of things have you seen people get in trouble for on the bus? Anything happen recently?”
We also encourage our son to say something if he sees someone being bullied. Moss recommends having your child come up with a phrase to support other kids, and offers the suggestion of, “Hey, that’s not cool,” or “Knock it off.” My son agrees with that idea, but also says, “Mom, that’s hard. Did you ever say something when you saw someone being bullied?” And I have to admit that mostly I didn’t, that I was too scared to speak up — but that now I really, really wish that I’d had the courage to stick up for others more often. I tell him that change starts with one person’s voice, and I truly believe that — but I also know how hard it is to be that one person.
“Bullying is a cowardly act,” says Moss. “And cowards work best in quiet, dark places. When you speak out about bullying, you are not ‘snitching,’ you are turning on the light so that nobody else gets stuck in that dark place again with the bully.”
How do you talk to your child about reporting bullying at school, on the school bus, or in your neighborhood?
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.