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What is the bystander effect?


The bystander effect was first described in 1964 when Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City. The murder was witnessed by many onlookers and yet no one intervened.  Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley labeled this effect the bystander effect and noted that it is less likely that any one person will intervene when there are a lot of other people around.  They suggested two reasons for this effect:  the diffusion of responsibility, meaning that a group of onlookers assumes that someone else will take responsibility for intervening and social influence, meaning that individuals tend to watch the people around them to figure out how to act.


It seems like people have different ideas about parenting than I do. How do I tell them that spanking is bad and that they shouldn’t hit their kid?


There is a lot of research about the negative effects of spanking.  However, a stressful moment isn’t the best time to tell a caregiver your thoughts about spanking, or even to judge their parenting. Just as during a heart attack is not the best time to give someone a lecture about getting proper exercise. It can be freeing to know that bystanders don’t have to discuss these things with parents in order to help. Simply engaging the parent and child is enough, without sharing your ideas about spanking or how someone should raise their child.


I saw a mom yanking her kid’s arm, but is that bad enough to say something?


Bystanders in the community sometimes see caregivers yelling or threatening their child and may even see caregivers physically hurting a child. Sometimes this behavior is an isolated incident or sometimes the parent is just parenting the way they’re used to. Yanking a kid’s arm is a pretty clear signal that something isn’t going well and that support from a bystander may help. Bystanders don’t need to worry about changing someone’s parenting or figuring out if an event is “bad enough” – It’s enough to simply step forward to offer support at that time.


Last week at the grocery store, a mom was calling her son a bunch of terrible names.  I couldn’t believe she was so hurtful to her son, so I gave her a really disapproving look.


It's important to notice these types of situations, but disapproving looks usually just fuel the fire.  Nobody wants to be judged for their parenting, and a harsh look might make her take her frustrations out on her son even more.  Next time, try offering kind words to the child, or distracting the mom with a question about a particular cereal to help them move to a different frame of mind.  And be careful that you’re not giving the side-eye.


We’re all so private these days. Shouldn’t I just stay out of other people’s business?


Generally, yes.  But when people are in danger or really stressed, the kind thing to do is help out.  Much like how community members can be trained in providing emergency medical care, like CPR, we can also be trained to help in other situations. There are many training programs that teach people in the community how to reach out a helping hand.  For example, bystander training programs have helped address sexual assault and bullying by teaching participants how to recognize risks and what to do and say to stand alongsidesomeone having a difficult time. 


Last month I saw a mom really shoving her kid hard in the grocery store.  I wanted to do something, but was worried that I might make things worse for the kid.  What should I do?


Support Over Silence for KIDS trains bystanders to step forward  to offer support in a positive way so that the caregiver does not feel embarrassed or confronted.  For instance, the distraction techniques allow bystanders to practice different ways to engage the parent or child or to draw attention to themselves or things around them instead. Using these and other strategies can reduce tension in the moment to help calm the parent and child.


Why does it matter if I talk to a struggling parent or not?


Tense parent-child interactions not only happens in private, but also in public places such as grocery stores, healthcare clinics or events where parenting stress is high. Sometimes the situation is tense only for that moment.  Other times, what’s happening in public reflects mistreatment that’s happening at home.  For a bystander to help, it’s not important to figure out why the struggle is happening, just to offer support before the situation escalates.  Our research shows that that even one kind word from a stranger can make a huge difference for a child or caregiver.


If you don’t see your question answered here, please reach out to us on our contact page.

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