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Watching George Floyd Die: Turning Bystanders into Upstanders

Cynthia McDermott: When someone could step in and help in an obvious situation and chooses not to do so, we scratch our collective heads.  Why did they stand by?

The world is being torn apart by so many things but particularly the actions of one cop in one city against one black man. And the world stood by and watched. What are the children thinking about this?


They see and sometimes experience many behaviors in their lives of bullying and unfair treatment and mixed messages. Adults demonstrate inconsistencies all the time while expecting children to accept our behavior without question. Rarely do we stop to listen to our children to help them understand what must be many levels of confusion.

When someone could step in and help in an obvious situation and chooses not to do so, we scratch our collective heads. Why did they stand by?

And what did they see this week but adults who could have stopped the murder simply standing by. Bystander behavior has been studied over time because it is confusing. When someone could step in and help in an obvious situation and chooses not to do so, we scratch our collective heads. Why did they stand by? This bystander effect is a social phenomenon that occurs when people fail to help those in need due to the presence of other people. In many cases, people feel that since there are other people around, surely someone else will leap into action.

Can we teach the opposite of this behavior? Can we teach or at least encourage Upstander behavior—and what is that? More than thirty years ago, an organization called Facing History Ourselves coined the expression Upstander. An upstander a person or organization who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. How do we learn to be upstanders rather than bystanders?

What does it take to help our children grow into upstanders?

It appears that if children believe that they are expected to be helpful that they will do so. They will be much less likely to do so when adults step in believing that the kids are too young or too inexperienced to be helpful. When adults get out of the way, kids can be heroic.

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Bystanding behavior occurs when the crowd watches and creates an audience. Explaining this to kids and helping them know how to mobilize others and report what is wrong allows them to act without having to do it on their own.

Empathy is a key component of upstander behavior, so providing opportunity for kids to observe, experience and act in empathic ways will encourage this. Empathy for children needs to be demonstrated as well, particularly during difficult times such as the pandemic and the loss of their social network.

Adults who are upstanders, who speak about injustice and who act against it, provide a model for kids to see what it means to have a moral compass. Asking children what they stand for and discussing that with them helps them see themselves as active citizen who can make a difference.

Speak to the kids, listen to their concerns and help them understand the inconsistencies of adult behavior. Read to them and go to the website for book suggestions from Antioch University.

What happened in Minneapolis is confusing for children. They saw on national television the worst demonstration of bystanding behavior ever possible. Imagine how different the results would have been if just one person had stood up and said STOP.

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Cynthia McDermott

Cynthia McDermott is Regional Director as Antioch University. Her most recent book is Empowering Students for the Future, Rowman and Littlefield, 2019

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