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How to teach children to be upstanders: An age-by-age guide

With the right guidance and support, kids can become more than just bystanders to bullying and racism.
Blurry shadows of three boys
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/ Source: TODAY

Speaking up when someone is a bully or says something racist, sexist or homophobic can be tough for an adult. It’s even harder for a child. That’s why parents need to set the example of how to be an upstander for their children and encourage them to act when they see something wrong.

“We’re our children’s first teachers,” Dr. Candice Jones, an Orlando pediatrician, told TODAY Parents. “We teach our kids what bullying really is so they understand a clear-cut definition ... Then you want to give them some steps on what to do.”

It’s important that children know that bullying can be physical or verbal and if they ever feel unsafe they should ask an adult to intervene. Here is an age-by-age guide:

Preschool and kindergarten

Experts recommend first asking children what they know about bullying and standing up to people who are doing something wrong. This helps parents understand what their children know.

“Ask your children. Start with their base knowledge of what does a bully look like,” Annette Nunez, a psychotherapist in private practice, told TODAY Parents. “Really start identifying all the different forms of bullying behavior. It can be verbal. It can be physical. It can be cyberbullying. It can be teasing.”

Jones says even young children can understand complex concepts such as anger, bullying and unfairness. But they need to understand when to tell an adult, such as when someone is being harmed.

“Telling on someone for a little things is not what we want to encourage,” Jones said. “We want to squash tattling. But we don't want to discourage reporting, and so a distinction can be if it's something that can hurt someone.”

Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, says that encouraging children to do chores can actually help teach them about caring for other people. Instilling in them the idea that everyone works together around the house or neighborhood translates to children who grow to speak up when noticing a wrong.

“What we're trying to cultivate with kids — to get them to be the kind of people who advocate for others — is a sense of responsibility for problems that don't directly involve them,” Gilboa told TODAY Parents. “We do that by teaching them to notice a piece of litter on the sidewalk and pick it up and throw it away; teaching them to notice when someone's walking through a door with their hands full and go hold it for them; teaching them to do things around the house ... like clearing their own plate but also clearing plates for other people.”

Grade school

Again, experts say asking children about their understanding of bullying, injustices or wrongs can help get parents and children on the same page. Older children can learn to say something instead of simply reporting it.

“You never want your children to insert themselves in a way that they get physically hurt, of course. But you want to empower them that there are things they can do,” Jones said. “We want them to have that compassion and we want them to maybe try to befriend that person ... or let (the victim) know, 'I see you. When this happens in front of me, I’m going to try to help you.'"

Creating a distraction can be a useful way to stop a bad behavior. Maybe a child could start talking about a cool new game or a terrible homework assignment.

“You want to give them a bunch of different options to try to distract from the situation and let that person know I got your back,” Jones said.

Gilboa says that teaching children to speak up when they see something they don’t agree with can help them become better upstanders. Say a child dislikes a new school policy or thinks the stop sign down the street should be a traffic light — encouraging them to write a letter or speak to a school official, for example, teaches them to act.

“Stop and say, ‘OK, what are you going to do about it? I hear what you feel and what you believe, and now I want you to act on it,'" she explained. “This is really important for raising upstanders.”

Middle school

Children this age will likely hear about situations in their school or in the world where people are being mistreated. Experts recommend parents talk to their children about such examples.

“Always ask a child: What does this mean to you? And how would you handle it? Then process through giving an example of this is how I would handle it, but also giving labels. This is advocacy,” Nunez said. “Sometimes to be a compassionate individual you do have to stand up for what is right.”

Parents should encourage their children use neutral language and tone when intervening.

“They can do it in a calm manner and if the (bully) gets escalated or make threats, well, that's bullying behavior,” Nunez said. “Then at that point they can go to a trusted adult.”

Parents can model such behavior, too, when they encounter adults behaving poorly. Say another parent is saying something racist at a softball game. A parent can step in and ask them calmly not to say such hurtful things, for example.

“Whenever you decide confront or handle a tough situation, they’re watching you,” Jones said. “Just be mindful that you're setting that example.”

High school

By this point, children get it. Still, parents should use questions to understand a teen’s thinking. Moms and dads also can use real-life examples to guide the conversation.

“It is very important to revisit these things often,” Jones said.

And older children can become more involved in advocacy. If a teen wants to protest the rise of racism and violence against the Asian American Pacific Islander community, they can join a protest to support of the AAPI community, for example.

“We want to raise kids who notice something happening to someone else and don't just put their head down and ... think, 'That has nothing to do with me,'" Gilboa said. “We have to give them lots of practice.”

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