Recently I read about a very disturbing study. A group of people were asked what they would do if they witnessed someone making a racist joke, taunting someone or displaying overt racism in some way. Almost to a person, everyone said they would speak up for what was right.
Unbeknownst to the subjects of the study, it didn’t stop there. The group conducting the study then set up situations in the real life world of each subject. Each situation allowed the subject to witness a scene similar to one they had been told about previously.
Sadly, almost no one in the study actually stepped in and tried to stop the racist behavior or help the victim in any way. These people knew what they should do and maybe even what they honestly thought they would do. When real life happened though, they were unable or unwilling to do anything godly to change the situation.
You may not realize it, but the Bible has a lot of verses which talk about God’s people being defenders of justice and protecting widows, orphans, foreigners and others who are often marginalized by society. If our children are going to be active, productive Christians, they need to be able to help others by making godly choices in the face of ungodly situations.
There is more to training your child to stand up for what’s right than just saying “Do it!”. The papers are filled with people who call themselves Christians who are acting as ungodly as the actions of the people they are supposedly opposing. I don’t recall anywhere in the Bible where it calls us to be ungodly in stopping ungodly behavior or in our attempts to help others.
So what do we teach our children about how to handle these difficult situations?
- Ungodly, ugly, even hateful behavior is never made better if your children respond in the same way. Admittedly, the temptation to slug someone acting in racist, prejudiced or hateful ways is great – especially for young people who have not fully developed impulse control. It is really important to emphasize violence and ugly, hateful talk is never appropriate. You may have to role play various scenarios to help your children practice more acceptable responses.
- Teach your children if the victim is present they should if at all possible help remove the victim from the situation. People who routinely talk ugly to others are bullies. A peer is rarely going to convince a bully to change and may only escalate the situation. Often a simple “Hey Sue, why don’t we head on to class?” and taking the victim by the hand or arm and leading them away will stop the harassment.
- If anyone is in immediate danger, teach your children to find an adult to help as quickly as possible. Does the perpetrator have a reputation for being violent or is he already threatening the victim? Your children should not have to physically engage the bully. Encourage them to run find an adult to help.
- Teach your children how to kindly stop ugly talk when the victim is not present. People love to tear down others behind their backs. It is not a victimless crime. It establishes bad habits and word often gets back to the target of the conversation. Teach your children to gently, kindly, but firmly say, “I’m not comfortable talking about somebody this way. Can we please change the subject? Are you guys ready for the test today?” Or whatever they can think of to change the subject away from talking ugly about another person.
- Train your children to recognize that generalized ugly talk is just as harmful as ugly talk targeted to one specific person. Just because everyone is saying hateful things about all of the students at another school or the citizens of another city, state or country and not mentioning someone by name, does not make it godly. This is at the root of most prejudice – judging people by some outer characteristic and assuming everyone with that characteristic is alike. Your children should be willing to help stop this general bashing as much as if someone were standing there being harassed.
- Debating someone who is doing what is wrong is rarely successful. Most people would make horrible debaters. They can only think of one or two somewhat solid points and soon dissolve into name calling or worse. If someone wants to talk with your children later about a certain type of behavior or a specific belief, they should know enough to have a rational discussion of the topic. In the heat of the moment, when the other person is actively engaged in an ungodly act is probably not the most effective time to have that conversation.
- Your children should be able to plant godly seeds in almost any ungodly situation. Instead of debating, teach your child to say “I’m not comfortable doing this.” and then give the other person something to consider for later in a non-threatening, loving way. “I always try to remember what it would feel like to be the new person in school and not know anyone.” or some other small nugget that may make the other person think later about their actions.
- Your children should be able to share their faith with their peers. They don’t have to have all of the answers. They should be able to tell their friends why they believe in God, how they have seen God work in their lives and the lives of others and the basic story of Jesus and the Gospel message. They should also be comfortable asking their peers to attend church and Bible studies with them.
- Remind your children people often make poor choices because they are hurting from the problems in their lives and because they don’t have God in their lives. Kids don’t always tell each other when horrible things happen at home. Granted some kids are spoiled and just plain mean, but even they have often picked these behaviors up from parents who have treated them in ungodly ways. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it can help your children remember to be more gentle and loving when talking with the person.
- Teach your children to always bring God into “battle” with them. The Old Testament makes it so very clear God’s people are successful when they depend upon God for the victory. Yes, your children will need to step up and do the godly thing, but they need to take it to God in prayer – even while it is happening. That strength that can only come from God may be what they need to change things for the good.
Your kids may not always stand up for what’s right, but the more tools you give them, the more likely they are to use them. Role play or talk through various common scenarios they may encounter. If the opportunity arises and they stand up for what is right, be sure and tell them how proud you are of them and how happy it must have made God – even if they weren’t successful or didn’t execute it perfectly. Standing up for others takes courage and practice, but with your help and the courage that can only come from God, your children may become champion defenders of what’s right.