Guest column: Bullies, bystanders and tattletales
March 16, 2016
For generations, parents and teachers have told children, "Nobody likes a tattletale." We advise children to stay out of other people's business and let people fight their own battles. We teach them to avoid the drama and warn them not to get involved because it isn't their problem. All of this seems to make sense. Except being a bystander who watches people being mistreated presents an important moral dilemma. Should our children take action to help someone even when it is not in their own best interests? How children resolve this dilemma in childhood has a lasting impact on how they react when grappling with this question — one that will continue to present itself — throughout their lives.
It was 3 a.m. on March 13, 1964, when the attack began. Kitty Genovese was outside her apartment building. Several of her neighbors later said they heard her screaming during the half-hour-long attack. According to the news as it was reported at the time, Kitty cried out, "Oh, my God, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!"
One man opened his window and shouted, "Leave that girl alone." The killer walked away briefly, but when the light behind the window went out, he returned to stab Kitty again.
"I'm dying!" she yelled. "I'm dying!" Lights went on in several apartments, and the killer left again. No one came down to help her, and no one called the police. The killer returned and finished the job in the entryway to the apartment building where Kitty lay slumped on the floor.
Some time later, after Kitty was already dead, a neighbor called the police, who arrived within two minutes of his call. The man later explained that he deliberated about calling for help, even phoning a friend first for advice.
"I didn't want to get involved," he explained. Police asked the other 37 neighbors who heard the violent attack why they didn't call for help. Responses ranged from "We thought it was a lovers' quarrel" to "I was tired. I went back to bed."
In the book "Fifty Years After Kitty Genovese: Inside the Case That Rocked Our Faith in Each Other," Police Detective Albert Seedman describes his interview with the killer, who was caught six days later in a house robbery.
"Weren't you scared those people up there had called the cops?" the detective asked.
"Oh I knew they wouldn't do anything," the killer said. Seedman detected a faint smile. "People never do."
Kitty was the murderer's third victim.
The Genovese murder sparked decades of studies regarding how people respond when others are in trouble. Alarmingly, social scientists quickly discovered something they called the bystander effect: The likelihood of a bystander helping someone in trouble is lessened when more people know about what's happening. Other studies examined the impact of groupthink, the influence of authority and the importance of identifying with the person in trouble.
Armed with all that research, are we better bystanders 50 years later? It doesn't look that way. In 2009, as many as 20 people knew that a 15-year-old girl was being gang-raped outside a homecoming dance in Richmond, California. Later, some of them said they didn't do anything because they didn't want to be a "snitch."
Today, bullying experts believe that out of resistance to being a "tattletale," too often children don't tell adults about being mistreated, nor do they report what they see happening to their peers. Other reasons children don't report bullying is embarrassment, fear of retaliation, concern that they won't be believed and resignation that nothing they do will make a difference. According to experts, the two most effective peer strategies in eliminating bullying are befriending the victim and for bystanders to tell adults what is going on.
Most social aggression, particularly among girls, is difficult for adults to detect without bystander intervention because it is so covert. As Rachel Simmons, co-founder of Girls Leadership, wrote in "Odd Girl Out," "Covert aggression isn't just about not getting caught; half of it is about looking like you'd never mistreat someone in the first place. The sugar-and-spice image is powerful and girls know it. They use it to fog the radar of otherwise vigilant teachers and parents."
When we teach our children not to be tattletales, we are training them to become passive, unhelpful bystanders who refuse to intervene when someone needs them. We have been trained this way ourselves. How often have we declined to give feedback to our children's schools because it doesn't seem to be in our own best interests? How often have we known that someone else's child is suffering and done nothing to help?
Bullying expert Stan Davis, author of "Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies for Reducing Bullying," and his colleague Charisse Nixon, co-author of "Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying," in their study of more than 13,000 children, found that if you want to end bullying, telling children not to be a tattletale is the most harmful thing you can do.
When your children come home from school, instead of "How was your day?" or other questions revolving around your child's experience, try asking, "Did you notice anyone struggling with something today?" or "Did you have the chance to help anyone today?" and other questions that prompt children to be empathetic. According to Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, by the time they reach college, empathy is in short supply. In fact, this generation of students are "the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history."
The ambulance arrived for the body of Kitty a little over an hour after the attack began. A detective at the scene reported that as soon as it drove off, "the people came out."
Dr. Pamela Paresky is a psychologist and coach with MultiGenerational Consulting Services LLC. She teaches leadership and consults with schools, businesses, nonprofits and marketing firms and also works with individuals and families. She is the director of the Aspen Center for Human Development, is the author of the guided journal "A Year of Kindness" and writes the Psychology Today blog "Happiness and the Pursuit of Leadership." For a more detailed version of this article and more information on bullying, visit http://www.psychologytodayblog.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.