Bullies, Bystanders and Tattletales

'Nobody likes a tattletale' is a myth that makes bullying worse.

Posted Mar 17, 2016

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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, “Don’t get involved, It isn’t your problem.” All of this seems to make sense. But being a bystander presents a significant moral dilemma. Should our children take action to help even when it might present problems for them? Should they help when it does not appear to be in their own self interest? 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.

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It was 3 am 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, Genovese 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.

Sometime 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 Kitty 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 is happening. Other studies examined the impact of  “groupthink,” the influence of authority, and the importance of a feeling of connection to the person in trouble.

Armed with all that research, are we better bystanders fifty years later? It doesn’t look that way. In 2009, as many as twenty people knew that a 15-year-old girl was being gang-raped outside a homecoming dance in Richmond, CA. Later some of them said they didn’t do anything because they didn’t want to be a “snitch.”

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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 the National Center for Learning Disabilities, although teachers believe they intervene over 70% of the time, school personnel “notice or intervene in only one in twenty-five incidents.” In one survey of children who were bullied, ninety percent said they do not tell adults about cyberbullying incidents. The most cited reason: they believed they needed to “learn to deal with it themselves.” Yet, according to experts, the two most effective peer strategies in eliminating bullying are 1) to befriend the victim and 2) for bystanders to tell adults what is going on.

As if that weren't reason enough for children to intervene when they see others being mistreated, years of research on the effects of bullying reveals that being a passive bystander can become as deleterious to the bystander’s mental health as it is for the victim. Bystanders who do nothing to help other children are at increased risk of becoming anxious and depressed, and getting involved in alcohol and drugs.

Misconceptions about who engages in bullying are rampant. For years we have believed that bullies are either "bad kids" or lack self-esteem. In general, experts find that children who mistreat others do not have issues with self-esteem. In fact, many are quite popular with peers and are even well-liked by teachers. Children who are willing to hurt others lack empathy, not self-esteem. 

Bullying comes in many forms. What most readily comes to mind is the physical kind: tripping, pushing, hitting, knocking children into lockers, and the like. But other forms of bullying are equally harmful: social and relational aggression such as name-calling, taunting, verbal threats, spreading rumors, talking and making faces behind someone’s back, and other behavior meant to exclude or isolate someone are particularly damaging, since social support is essential to both psychological and even physical well-being.

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Most social and relational 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, writes 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 does not seem to be in our own or our child's interest? How often have we had an inkling 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, author of Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying, in their study of over 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. "Speaking up about injustice is a good thing," says Davis. "It is our job as adults to encourage youth to do so." 

Pamela Paresky image
Source: Pamela Paresky image

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 compassionate. According to Sara Konrath from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, by the time children reach college, compassion is in short supply. In fact, this generation of students are, “the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history.”

In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a gay freshman in college, committed suicide after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, set up a webcam to remotely broadcast video of Clementi in a romantic encounter with a man. Testimony after Clementi’s death revealed that Ravi had posted an invitation to a “viewing party” on Twitter. Several students watched and even posted comments making fun of Clementi, but no one intervened to stop the cyberbullying. After Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge, students held vigils and joined a Facebook page honoring him.

The ambulance arrived for Genovese's body a little over an hour after the attack began. A detective at the scene reported that as soon as the ambulance drove off, “the people came out.” ♦