Be an Upstander by Michelle Sperzel

This month, the world comes together to raise awareness for bullying prevention and to reflect on where we have been, where we are now and where we hope to be in the years to come.

Most people, kids and adults, say they are against bullying. But if this is the case, why do we have bullying? The answer is that when bullying happens, it is often not recognized because it is emotional or verbal or we don’t know what to do about it.

An Every Day Problem

This past summer, I led three listening groups with girls who were attending camp. Listening groups are similar to focus groups, but you listen to what the participants have to say as they work out what the issue is and what solutions are possible. Each group said bullying and being judged by others was the biggest issue they face every day. Every day!

One girl said, “I hate walking to the bus because someone there is going to say my skirt is too short, that my shirt is ugly or make comments about my shoes.”

Another girl, age 13, told me, “The girls at school judge me. They think I am weird or they think my personality is weird. They make fun of my clothes and how I talk or think.”

Girls listening and learning from each other at summer camp.
Creating Solutions

As I listened to the girls, it was very hard not to give advice. The purpose of the exercise is to have them give us solutions. I literally had to sit on my hands so I didn’t start giving advice. The girls’ suggestions of how to solve bullying and judgement from others from were slow to come at first, but when they did, they were on point.

Some of the girls suggested ignoring the bully so you don’t give away your power. Others said you have the courage to be yourself – it’s hard, but it’s harder not to be. My favorite response was this: “You need to put it back on the person. So like if they say, ‘You are tall.’ You say, ‘Yes, I am. So does that make you short?’ They should know what it feels like to be bullied.”  Some of the responses were disheartening. Some of the girls said it doesn’t matter, it won’t change and they don’t know what to do about it.

The Bystander

Once the girls gave their response, the coaches and I were able to start talking about solutions too. One strategy for bullying prevention focuses on the powerful role of the bystander. Bullying situations usually involve more than just the bully and the victim. They also involve bystanders – those who watch bullying happen or hear about it. Depending on how bystanders respond, they either contribute to the problem or the solution. Bystanders rarely play a completely neutral role, although they may think they do.

We talked about not participating in talking badly about another person and the courage it takes to stand up to a friend by asking them to stop. We talked about how doing that made a difference in real-life situations and in their own experiences.

At Girls in the Game, all girls find their own voice.
Being an Upstander

The wisest words came from the youngest girls. A young girl said, “When I hear someone talking bad about a girl, I ask why she thinks she is better than her. I ask her if talking bad makes her feel better. Most of the time, the girl stops talking and then I go talk to the girl she was talking bad about. I don’t think talking like that is nice so I want to be friends with the other girl.”  This little girl might not know it, but she is an effective bystander, also known as an upstander. She made the bullying stop.

Research shows that bullying stops within 10 seconds of a bystander stepping in to help. At Girls in the Game, we talk to the girls about self-esteem and the program itself builds confidence. What we teach in 90 minutes once a week makes an impact on a girl’s life. I love our messaging about not being a spectator, and in this case, we are teaching the girls not to be spectators when they witness someone being a bully. We encourage them to use their voices, speak their minds and stand up for what they believe in. I encourage you to do the same. There will always be bullies, but we can be the upstander who speaks up to make it stop.





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