The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander: We Are All Responsible, Part 1 - In the Home

Recently, I had the privilege of being in the audience as parenting expert and author, Barbara Coloroso addressed hundreds of parents, educators and community members on the subject of bullying.

With wit and wisdom, using points from her bestselling book and speaking series, The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, Ms Coloroso offered the most reasonable, democratic and accountable solution to ending the cycle of bullying I have yet to encounter.

Bullying is not a problem specific to the schoolyard. It is behaviour applied to another with the intention of being mean, with no concern over how that behaviour might make another person feel.

Bullying is effective when the perpetrator dehumanizes his victim, reducing him to an ‘it.’

Bullies do not think of their victims as girls or boys or classmates or people – they think of them as less than human, undeserving of the most basic respect or safety.

Simple enough to understand and explain to even the smallest child, but for those that may still argue that bullying is no big deal, or just a part of childhood, Ms Coloroso encouraged us to see the issue couched in a more global view:

Perpetrators of war are bullies with more power. Hitler wasn’t exterminating Jewish people, because he did not think of Jews as people, he thought of them as rats. He was exterminating vermin. And hate crimes are criminal bullying. It’s not that slippery of a slope, and while we incriminate and decry such behaviour when we see it in the headlines, most of us do nothing when we see it in our neighbourhood.
(Well, the truth is, most of us do nothing when we see it in the headlines, but we'll save that for part 3 of this series.)

In a concise and engaging way, Ms Coloroso explained how, in the home, in the schoolyard and throughout the community, we each play a part in preventing bullying or putting a stop to it when it happens. She showed us that we are all culpable when it comes to allowing one person to dominate and terrorize another, whether our role is that of bully, bullied or bystander. And some of the things she said were not easy to hear.

As parents, we must give our children two things to help combat bullying: confidence and language.

The confidence is so that our children feel worthy of fair treatment, trust their judgment and feel self-assured enough to be:
  • A witness
  • A resister
  • A defender

A child armed with enough confidence to be those three things can identify injustice, stand up to injustice and will feel compelled to protect those to whom injustice is being done. In other words, we must teach our children to respect, care for and expect equality for themselves and their fellow citizens.

And how do we do this?

We enable our children to make good decisions. We increase their choices and responsibilities constantly and consistently so that they know how to make good decisions. Our children must learn how to do this, to feel confident in their ability to make good decisions.

Here, Ms Coloroso stressed giving our children age-appropriate choices and limits. We would not ask a 2 year-old whether or not they were ready for bed. When to go to bed is decision we, as parents must make. But we can ask our 2 year-old whether they would like to wear the blue pajamas or the red pajamas to go to bed in.

We then continue to unspool our thread of control over our children, so that eventually, they will be able to leave the house and make reasonable decisions, which will help ensure that they do not become active participants in bad decisions. 

We can’t just tell our children what to do, or else, in absence of us, they will simply listen to someone else. Let’s teach them to how to think, not just what to think.

We also teach our children to become witness, resister and defender with language.

For if a child does not know how to properly communicate what she sees happening, she will never be able to help stop it. We have to give them, and allow them to use, the words necessary to stand up for themselves or to tell somebody else what is going on.

Do you use the proper words for body parts at home? Because an unfortunate truth is that, by middle school, most bullying includes some form of negative sexual behaviour. And I don’t mean flirting, which is fun, usually harmless, and quite frankly, necessary for the propagation of our species. I mean, if a bully is taunting your child because she developed earlier than the other girls in her class, have you taught her that it is totally ok and not embarrassing to say the word, breast? Because if she has never heard the word out loud in a healthy, normal way, chances are, she won’t tell somebody what is going on.

Another way that we have to look at the use of language in the home is when we consider what kind of a role model we are being to our children. What kind of language do we use at the dinner table? Is it inclusive? Is it democratic? Is it kind?

Ms Coloroso used this kind of an example: Uncle George has just told a joke that is by any measure, racist. What do we, as parents do?

Do we say nothing?

Do we dismiss the behaviour with a wave of the hand because it is crazy uncle George and that’s just the way he is?

Or do we act with integrity and compassion, modeling it for our children by telling uncle George that is not the way we choose think of other people, and that his joke was mean and derogatory?
Because the truth is, it’s not just a joke. It is degrading and dehumanizing behaviour, and if you do or say nothing, you have just taught your child that the behaviour is acceptable.

How do we speak of our neighbours? Do we speak of the people that moved in across the road, with different coloured skin and different beliefs and different customs, with respect and kindness? Or do we refer to them in terms that are intolerant, unjust?

(Sidenote: interestingly, Ms Coloroso stressed that our goal is not to teach our children tolerance. Tolerate others? Is that really what we want? Or do we want them to care for others? Let’s teach them that.)

I’m sure you understand Ms Coloroso’s point here. Are you teaching your kids to dehumanize others? Are you teaching them meanness and hate? Are you teaching them to be a bully?

You don’t have to like everybody. But you do have to honour their humanity. Let’s teach our children that at the dinner table. Let’s teach that to crazy uncle George.

Next up, Part 2 - In the Schoolyard



  1. This is my parenting MANTRA: "You don’t have to like everybody. But you do have to honour their humanity." I believe it's one of the most IMPORTANT things I can teach my children. And, in fact, having a larger family provides many opportunities for teaching and modelling with siblings. You are so right, Karen, it begins at home.

    1. Agree about the lessons learned in a larger family.

  2. The uncle george analogy is a good one. Social situations are difficult. We had a customer say something VERY racist in front of us a while ago. Boo is too little to understand and we let it slide, mostly because we need his business, but afterwards, I felt 'weak', like I should have been able to say something. All the talking and articles and posts about bullying and meanness are important. It raises the level of discussion into the social consciousness. So thanks Karen... ;)

  3. All good and insightful advice. And I have no problem teaching my children to honour everyone's humanity. I do have some reservations with the bystander thing - I think if children are on the same 'level' as the bullied child, it's unreasonable to expect them to stand up to the bully, which will likely only get them bullied in turn. If the child has the power to do something, absolutely they should, but they don't always, and I don't think it's letting them off any kind of hook to recognize that.

    1. I understand the desire to not put our children in harm's way, but there are measures we can take to ensure that the bystander is as protected as the bullied. I'm going to talk more about why this is our - and our children's - responsibility in part 2.

  4. I actually was thinking today that I need to read that book, when my daughter said that one of her classmates picks on smaller kids. She said she's never seen it herself, only heard about it. I was honestly at a loss as to what to say about it.

  5. wow this had been very informative. I detest bullies and try to stand up for the bullied whenever I can.. I have looked away a few times and always felt rotten about it.

    And when I stood up for my friends who were being called sexist, degratory names jokingly (of course!) told me to "back off, they're just being boys.. you will make it worse" I thought, "THAT'S IT, NO MO' HELPING YOUR UNGRATEFUL ASS". But I guess I need to assess a different way to go about it?

    I'm rambling. What I would like to add is - THANK YOU for writing this. I will check out that book and see areas I can improve on etc.

    p.s. First time visitor btw and already loving your blog. bookmarked!

    All the best regards
    Sunita, HK


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