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How do you raise kids who aren't bystanders?

A week ago, a 15-year-old California girl was raped and beaten by several people for 2 hours outside of a high school homecoming dance. The horror of the crime is almost too much for me to take in. In a case like this, no matter how much I think about it, I'm always left with more questions than answers.

As the news on the subject evolved, more and more questions are being raised not only about the attackers (at least four have been charged), but about the dozen or so individuals who witnessed the crime and did nothing to stop it. There have been a number of theories thrown about on why so many could stand idly by, all of them plausible, all of them insufficient. I don't have any special insight into the kids who saw what was happening and did nothing, and I have a great deal of sympathy for the argument that the events outside of Richmond High shouldn't be taken as some sort of statement on all teens.

Still, what I'm interested in, now, is making sure that my children know -- beyond a shadow of a doubt -- that they have a responsibility not to look the other way when someone is being harmed.

My thinking on this was nicely summed up in a piece in the Toronto Star a couple of years ago where the authors talked about the impact of an interaction their mother had once had with a homeless man. Rather than shuffle her children past, eyes averted, the woman stopped, engaged the man in conversation, gave him a dollar, and then continued on her way. The lesson learned that day, the piece concluded, was about humanity and how important it was to never consider anyone "invisible."

That can be a tough lesson to teach, and it's fundamentally different from charity, which can be safely practiced from afar. Learning to connect with other people can be difficult, especially if those other people are strangers or are hurting (or both). I'd love to hear your suggestions on how you're teaching your children to resist being bystanders, not only in obvious cases, like the one in California, but in more subtle environments, too.

By Brian Reid |  November 3, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Discipline , Teens
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"Still, what I'm interested in, now, is making sure that my children know -- beyond a shadow of a doubt

There are no guarantees in life. Didn't someone recently post that their young kid was suspicious of a homeless/beggar type person?

Posted by: jezebel3 | November 3, 2009 7:13 AM | Report abuse

Not intervening is not limited to teen agers and is nothing new. Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in NY in 1964 and it's believed that there were 30-40 witnesses who didn't bother to intervene.

If you want your kids to act like human beings, then you have to act like a human being.

Posted by: VaLGaL | November 3, 2009 8:40 AM | Report abuse

The crazy thing is that now it's so easy just to get on the cell phone and call 911 and say something is going on and then just walk a safe distance away. What's so hard about that?

Posted by: cmecyclist | November 3, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

I wish I knew more about these kids. I'm guessing they don't come from the best area, where sympathy and empathy may be in short supply. My best guess on the way to raise a child who is likely to help, is to help yourself and talk with them about our responsibility to those around us. We talk a lot with our kids about how things make different people feel and often ask them to put themselves in someone else's shoes to help develop a sense of empathy. Beyond that, I don't know. I'm looking forward to seeing what others are up to.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | November 3, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

This isn't a new problem. Google "witnesses do nothing" and a few news stories come up. Here is one caught by a video surveillance camera about a elderly man hit by a car and left for dead, with witnesses doing nothing.
This isn't a problem for teens alone. It is known as bystander apathy or diffusion of responsibility and has been studied extensively. Here is an article that talks about ways to subvert the apathy created in large groups. It walks about being specific in your requests for help, identifying individuals for specific tasks, such as calling 911 or controlling bleeding.
Perhaps by instructing your child on specifics of what to do in an emergency situation (or uncomfortable one such as when they are exposed to illegal activities) may help them overcome this problem as well. Telling them about this phenomenon of bystander apathy may also help them overcome it. I agree with VaLGaL, all of this starts with your example as a parent.

Posted by: firemom35 | November 3, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

"I wish I knew more about these kids. I'm guessing they don't come from the best area, where sympathy and empathy may be in short supply."
The "They must not be like us" line is just another form of apathy. Bystander apathy is a common occurance in all walks of life (age, socio-economics, race, etc.)

Posted by: pipe1 | November 3, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

When I'm walking through (or stuck) in a crowd of people, it is very common for a child to ask me what my cane is for. More often than not, the parent will scold the curious child and sometimes even apologize to me on the behalf of their kid. But what did the kid do wrong? Talk to a stranger? Stare at me as if a blind person using a cane is a freak of nature? BTW: blind persons don't really much care if you stare at them, they really don't know. Anyway, I get disappointed when this happens because it prevents me from presenting myself as a "normal" person. You know, with thoughts and feelings like every other human as it's very easy for me to explain to a child, "I can't see, so I use my cane so I don't bump into things, right?" But instead, I leave the child with nothing but the image of a handicapped man with the command to keep quiet and get out of his way. It's like my handicap comes first, humanity second. It's a mind-your-own-business, don't get involved world out there and children get taught this at an early age. I guess it's the polite way to be.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | November 3, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I got my 2nd-grader the American Girl Dolls book _Stand up for yourself and your friends_.
It actually looks pretty good. Talks about bullying, and about being a bystander.

Posted by: inBoston | November 3, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Whacky- I am glad to hear your experience on this. My son is 2 and just starting to notice differences in people. On Saturday we saw a little girl (probably about 14 months old) with a pretty large hemangioma involving her lips, eye and ear, making them puffy and red. She and her Mom were within ear shot and he asked what happened to her face and why was it different. I haven't really had to deal with this type of thing yet, so haven't come up with my ideal way of dealing with these situations. What I said to him was, she is just different. Everyone is born different in some way, this is her way of being different. Her Mom and I then struck up a conversation and I encouraged my son to say hi to the girl. I am not sure if there was a better way I could have handled the situation, but I know I don't want to scold my son for an innocent question in which he can learn something. However, I don't want him to become insensitive to others and feel it is OK to point out their differences in an inappropriate way. Any suggestions on how to do this?

Posted by: firemom35 | November 3, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse


Thank you for your perspective.

Posted by: sunflower571 | November 3, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

NPR did a retrospective of the Kitty Genovese story a while back. Turns out most of it was not true and there were not 40 people standing around. It was politically useful to decribe how horrible society was becoming, etc.

Posted by: di89 | November 3, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I wish I knew more about these kids. I'm guessing they don't come from the best area, where sympathy and empathy may be in short supply."
The "They must not be like us" line is just another form of apathy. Bystander apathy is a common occurance in all walks of life (age, socio-economics, race, etc.)

No, not really, when your culture is gangsta hoopster machismo, empathy is given the short shrift....

Posted by: pwaa | November 3, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Firemom, you asked me for suggestions, and for the first time in parenting blog history, I'm coming up emptyheaded with advice. We all know that kids are notoriously and embarrasingly honest, and surely they can be taught social graces (How to lie appropriately), but empathy, I'm not so sure about. The more I think about it, the more I think that the ability to empathize is a God given gift that can only be gained through real life experiences. I suppose you can *TRY* to teach somebody empathy, but if that person can't truly internalize and understand the feelings of others, it will come out as phoney and patronizing. Maybe empathy is one of those human attributes that can only be gained through suffering, ya think?

Of course, I can give you suggestions on how to treat a blind person, though once again, I have individual preferences that are different from other blind people. Some blind people think it's insulting when others ask them if they need help and give an attitude to those who offer, which is bad for me, because I'm always looking for help, and I know some sighted people are reluctant to offer based on a past negative experience. The golden rul is always good - treat others as you would like to be treated, but even better yet is what I call the platinum rule - treat others as they want to be treated. A little tougher since everybody is like you said, different.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | November 3, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

The other day, I was driving by Landmark Mall when a car stopped suddenly, a man jumped out, punched someone on the sidewalk in the face, then jumped back in the car and sped away. Many other cars (with eyewitnesses) kept driving. Some yelled out the window, "Are you ok?" then kept driving.

I got the plate # and called 911, then pulled over to help the victim. He was a high school kid on his way home from school. Poor kid was terrified. He'd jaywalked in front of a car, sure, but that's no excuse to assault him! He sat in my car and cried while we waited for the cops.

There was one other eyewitness, too, who also got the plate #, so the cops went to arrest the bastard right then and there! But if we two hadn't bothered, then that poor kid would've been left alone on the sidewalk and the jerk who assaulted him would've faced no consequences.

It's not hard to call 911! Just do it.

Posted by: newslinks1 | November 3, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

One of the very first things that attracted me to DH was his empathy and willingness to help strangers - even when it gets him in trouble. The first time his mother came to visit us, we were on the way to the airport when we saw one man being attacked by a group. They were off the highway in a warehouse/industrial area, and we pulled off at the next exit and circled around and around trying to find them again. We did find a police cruiser and told him what we'd seen. And we were good and late when we finally got to the airport - MIL was *not* happy with us for making her wait, but she wasn't surprised at all when she found out the reason.

I think it is a lead-by-example lesson. DH has talked about race issues in New Orleans where he was born, and how his father (a minister) and the deacons of their church had invited the black Baptists to come to their white church one Sunday, and how all of the church's leaders were carrying blackjacks and such. None of the congregation misbehaved towards the guests, but DH was very proud that his father was prepared to defend his guests against his congregation if it had been necessary.

I've always tried to help people if I can. When I see a car broken down, I don't stop if I'm alone, but I'll find a way to get them some help. Before cell-phones that usually meant flagging down an officer and telling him about problems I'd seen. I've also regularly stood up to passers-by who are rude to my homeless friends.

Older son isn't good at recognizing social/empathy situations, but anytime he sees someone struggling with a physical challenge - like carrying something heavy - he's right there providing his muscles to get the task done.

Younger son is good at diffusing bullying situations and sticking up for himself and other vulnerable kids. Some of that comes from his being trained to be a playground mediator during his elementary school years, but some of it (I think, anyway) is seeing DH and me trying to help others around us wherever we go.

Posted by: SueMc | November 3, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I remember hearing a story years ago about a woman who was being assaulted (I think the guy may have intended to rape her) when a group of young boys- around 11 or 12 years old, came upon them. One of the kids stayed with the woman, while the rest chased the guy down, one of them stopping at a pay phone to call 911 as they ran. I was always really impressed by that story.

Do kids not grow up wanting to be superheroes anymore? When my 4-year-old plays with her friends, there are always constant shouts of "I'll save you!" I thought it was a fairly universal sentiment- the desire to be the hero and help people, but I guess not.

Posted by: floof | November 3, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

"The "They must not be like us" line is just another form of apathy. Bystander apathy is a common occurance in all walks of life (age, socio-economics, race, etc.)"

Oh, o.k., so the culture around a child and the manner in which they are raised, has NO bearing on how they behave. Guess everyone will have to rethink their parenting. They aren't like me. Neither is David Duke or Michel Vick.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | November 3, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

I'm going to try to use some emphathy with the bystanders.

Maybe they were in shock and completely paralyzed by what they saw?

I'm thinking that if my daughter were a high school girl witnessing this, I'd be very afraid of what would happen to her if she spoke up-- and if she ran away, she'd catch someone's eye . . . The whole thing is shocking. But how damaging is it to watch someone being tortured?

Sorry, that was my best effort and I think I came up short. I've got no emphathy for the bystanders.

Posted by: captiolhillmom | November 3, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

capitolhillmom: i could see it might be difficult to confront - especially when the kids are in high school. however, if it was at a dance at the school - there should have been adults around somewhere to tell...then the adults could stop it. It's a horrifying story.

We talk about empathy a lot i guess. My kids are constantly playing around, and eventually, one of them gets hurt (or well, they pretend). My oldest son's first reaction many times was to say: it's not my fault! And my reaction was always: i don't care whether it was on purpose or not - he's hurt, let's tend to the hurt person first, then we can figure out what happened later, if need be. The little one hurts the bigger one too - so I try to give them some information about what to do - i.e., someone you care about is hurting, let's try to deal with that, because we care about them, because we want them to not be hurting.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | November 3, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

While I agree that "They aren't like us" is a bogus argument, there are a couple of issues that factor into the situation in Richmond, CA.

In that town, like a lot of the East Bay, there's a long history of suspicion, mistrust, and downright hostility towards law enforcement. (Remember that case in Oakland a few months ago, when a petty criminal killed 4 police officers before getting shot himself -- and hundreds of people showed up at the criminal's funeral?)

Also, as capitolhillmom pointed out, another kid may be afraid to intervene or call the cops because he/she might become a target too. This is especially true in a city where (as noted above) the police are viewed as "the enemy" and cooperating with them might have dire consequences.

It's easy to say that kids *should* do the right thing -- but when doing so can be life-threatening, I can't entirely blame the kids for looking out for #1.

Posted by: PLozar | November 3, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

PLozar. I agree with your point about protecting yourself. The "Don't Snitch" campaign (if you can call it that) has been very "effective" in some areas where getting involved can get you killed. In the case mentioned by a previous post, I think that calling 911 was absolutely the right thing to do. With everyone having cell phones, getting involved is much safer than before.

Posted by: pipe1 | November 3, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

don't snitch only operates in areas where criminals are respected and the culture allows it. I remember with shame now, that in southern california where i went to school in the 70's, calling someone a narc was a grave insult. I see now that the liberal drug culture fostered that. Now I would be proud to be called a narc and get some drug dealing scumbag off the street.

Posted by: pwaa | November 3, 2009 3:21 PM | Report abuse

My daughters school has a peacemaker program. The 2nd and 3rd graders have recess together and some 3rd graders are assigned peacemakers.

My daughter (who is 2nd grade) had a problem with another little girl who kept using the monkey bars again and again without letting anyone else have a turn. The peacemaker said it would be good to share. Then everyone hugged and then the two girls shared the monkey bars without incident.

I did encourage my daughter to be a peacemaker next year. She knows several of the first graders by name because some of them go to her day care. It is a great program regardless of her participation.

Posted by: shdd | November 3, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

While I think that this is an admirable question of Brian to ask, I think it's an unfair analogy to compare kids witnessing a brutal gang rape in Richmond, CA to a family passing a homeless person panhandling on the sidewalk. The best way to keep your kids from being the bystanders to that kind of horrific crime is to not raise them in a neighborhood with the "snitches get stitches" rule of law. It's easy to pass judgment on the kids who saw and did nothing, but I'm willing to bet many if not all of them are traumatized too. I feel blessed to have grown up in a world in which gangsters are the law.

Posted by: JEGS | November 3, 2009 4:48 PM | Report abuse

err... make that "NOT the law."

Posted by: JEGS | November 3, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Whacky- Thanks for the insight and golden/platinum rules. I think you are right. Everyone has their own desires in how they would like to be treated. I guess for me the rule isn't always how they want to be treated (because this may not always known) but be sure to treat everyone with respect. If you have to ask someone about an ailment or obvious handicap (as in my sons case), do it with as much respect for the person as possible.
Now, how to teach this to an inquisitive 2 year old so that he learns to respect and empathize? Guess I will learn as we go. I am sure he will have a thing or two to teach me along the way. He already has taught me a lot.

Posted by: firemom35 | November 3, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

where the authors talked about the impact of an interaction their mother had once had with a homeless man. Rather than shuffle her children past, eyes averted, the woman stopped, engaged the man in conversation, gave him a dollar, and then continued on her way. AND NOW THE REST OF THE STORY...

and then he peed on the sidewalk and vomited before passing out in a planter. She's lucky he didn't try to stab her......

Posted by: pwaa | November 3, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse


NPR did a retrospective of the Kitty Genovese story a while back. Turns out most of it was not true and there were not 40 people standing around. It was politically useful to decribe how horrible society was becoming, etc.

Posted by: di89 | November 3, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, but it was used to inform the people about the horrors of black on white crime in America. That's aboout the time black on white crime began, and it continues to this day. 35,000 rapes of white women by black in 2005, less than 10 blacks raped by whites the same year. Source. US Department of Justice

Posted by: LouisCalabro | November 4, 2009 7:27 AM | Report abuse

The 15 year old victim was a "white" girl, raped primarily by Hispanic teens and young men.

There are only 2% white kids in that school, most are Hispanic or black.

They teach at the school that blacks and hispanics are the victims of hate crines---

but ignore the needs of white student. Kim Baker,a student and sister told of the abuse at the school against whites.

Posted by: LouisCalabro | November 4, 2009 7:32 AM | Report abuse

While there are always personality traits that affect a person's willingness to get involved, this is mostly about example. Do you tell your kids to stand up to bullies and then whine to your spouse over dinner about the jerk at work? Do you expect them to help others but you drive past disabled vehicles without even reachng for your cell phone?

Even worse than being a hypocrite is giving them mixed messages. Explain to me how you're supposed to help a stranger in need if you're not allowed to talk them.

You need to have actual conversations about how to deal with these situations, and explain what your reasoning is for not intervening when that woman at the store was smacking her kid around. If you can't come up with a satisfactory reason, then you need to own up to the fact that you didn't live up to your own expectations and tell your kid you'll try to do better next time.

Posted by: hbc1 | November 4, 2009 7:34 AM | Report abuse

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