HomeHealth & BehaviorBullying

The bully and the bystander

Experts say that empowering bystanders to take action might be the key to stopping bullies.

By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

An eighth-grader approaches a sixth-grader in a crowded girls' locker room. The older girl says to the younger, "Those are some ugly shoes you've got there." Then, in front of everyone, she takes out a permanent marker and slashes Xs on the younger girl's shoes, ruining them. The bystanders stare and shake their heads, but do not intervene or try to discourage the bully.

Unfortunately, this passive response from bystanders is not unusual. In other words, bystanders are living up to their name by standing there and doing nothing - and this is a problem. A number of experts today say that bystanders have the power to drastically reduce bullying at schools. Their research offers tips for parents and schools on how to get bystanders to take a stand.

Bystanders are important because:

  • Bullying most often takes place in front of peers.
  • It almost never happens when adults are watching.
  • Most bystanders want to do something to stop the bully.
  • Bullies like an audience. If the audience shows disapproval, bullies are discouraged from continuing.

However, bystanders, especially children, need to be empowered to act. The majority of children won't act for a variety of reasons, perhaps because they are afraid, confused or unsure of what to do.

A brief history of anti-bullying programs in schools

School programs to prevent bullying are a relatively new phenomenon. Some European countries and the United Kingdom started implementing them in the 1990s, but the United States was a little slower on the uptake. Ken Rigby, adjunct professor of education at the University of South Australia and the author of many books on bullying, says: "It has been increasingly more prevalent in the past five years or so in the United States. And bystander empowerment is certainly new."

A new focus on the bystander

Researchers are studying the role of the bystander and discovering just how crucial it can be in creating an emotionally healthy environment. If the status quo at any school is that children observe bullying behavior in others and do nothing about it, then they end up tacitly giving their support to the bully.

"We're now raising awareness about the group basis of bullying," says Tara Kuther, associate professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University and an expert on child and adolescent development. "Sometimes when people are in groups they might not do what they would do when they're alone. They might not do what they know they should do."

Stan Davis, a bully-prevention counselor and the author of Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention, says children are naturally empathetic. "But, kids don't know what to do in all situations," he says. "If they see someone being cruel to someone else, it's not always easy for them to know what to do."

What we know about bystanders

Without any education or support from adults, the vast majority of children will not take any action if they witness bullying. "The proportion of children who will spontaneously intervene is about one in five," says Rigby. "Children on the whole feel bullying is wrong and unfair, and most want to intervene, but there are all sorts of reasons why they don't."

The first step in empowering bystanders to act is to help them see that their peers also feel bullying is wrong. "Once they recognize that many of their friends want them to intervene, they are more likely to," says Rigby.

The second step is teaching them that intervening in a bullying situation can make a difference. Studies show that if a bystander discourages the bully there is a 50% chance that the bully will stop. "Most bullies bully because they want to impress people and they like an audience. So if the audience is booing instead of clapping, they realize they're losing their audience," says Rigby.

However, without any bullying-prevention education, as many as 25% of children will actually encourage the bully. "These kids tend to be friends with the bully," says Kuther. "They're also more likely to have low self-esteem. But the larger problem is that more than half of kids will do nothing if they see someone being bullied, and by doing nothing they encourage the bully."

Empowering the bystander is really about bridging the gap between what children believe is right and what they actually do. When asked what they should do in a bullying situation, about two-thirds of children say they should intervene, but only one-third of elementary school children actually do. In high school, the percentages are even lower: only one-quarter of high school students will intervene.

Says Kuther: "Why is it that adolescents act less frequently to stop bullying? Because bullying gets so much more sophisticated and subtle in high school. It's more relational. It becomes more difficult for teens to know when to intervene, whereas with younger kids bullying is more physical and therefore more clear cut."

It's important to teach children about the power of the bystander early, before they start to exhibit signs of lack of empathy. "Some children may protect themselves by becoming numb to bullying," says Davis. "There is a natural process of moving away emotionally and disengaging."

Compounding this problem is the fact that in early adolescence bullying tends to increase. "There is an upsurge in the desire to dominate in early secondary school," says Rigby.

What it means to empower the bystander

Rigby suggests getting kids to talk about bullying and tell what they would do if they saw it going on. "Getting children to make these statements has an empowering effect," he says.

In discussions among teachers, parents and kids about what to do when bullying occurs, the standard advice is to tell the bully to stop. Some adults will even go so far as to say that confronting the bully is a courageous thing to do.

But there are other approaches that may be easier - and safer - for children to use.

"We're looking at a wide range of options besides just telling the bully to stop it," says Davis. "For example, telling an adult is good. If they're uncomfortable giving lots of information, they can simply say 'Please watch the locker room at third period. There are bad things going on there at that time, but I'm not giving my name.'"

"As adults, we need to apologize to kids for the concept of tattling, which we made up and passed on to them. It's not tattling, it's being a witness to a crime," says Davis.

Another option for a child who witnesses bullying is to distract the bully. Or, he can offer an escape for the target by saying something to the target like, "Mr. Smith needs to see you right now."

Often children who are repeatedly bullied start to wonder if they deserve it or somehow bring it on themselves. A bystander can counteract these feelings by showing support to the bullied child, either during a bullying episode or afterward. A bystander can choose to sit with the child at lunch or sit by him in the classroom. "He can call the target at home to say I saw what happened and I didn't know what to do, but I don't think you deserved it.' Any expression of support is good," says Davis.

When bullying takes on a more subtle facade, as it frequently does in high school, bystanders should be encouraged to intervene by speaking up in support of a bullied classmate. "For relational aggression - name calling and gossiping - we encourage bystanders to take a stand," says Kuther. "A big piece of this intervention is teaching kids that other kids are feeling the same way they are about the bullying."

Physical confrontation can be dangerous

Children should not be encouraged to intervene physically in a fight or any dangerous situation. Once things escalate into physical altercations, adults should be summoned.

"Don't have children intervene physically because you never know where it's going to go," says Davis. "We discourage confrontation, unless the bystander is a friend of the bully and can say something like, 'Remember how much trouble you got in the last time you did something like this?'"

How schools can empower bystanders

"Every school has a bully-victim problem," says Rigby. Parents can get a sense of how healthy the school environment is when they visit. They can see whether the school is promoting respect for others by looking for anti-bullying posters and observing how respectful students are towards others. They can look to see if the children are playing happily together. "Parents should ask if there is an anti-bullying policy and if they can see it. Parents need to be assertive to find out how the school is teaching anti-bullying programs," says Rigby.

Schools have to make a public commitment against bullying. "Kids need to know that the bully will be punished," says Kuther. "Also, schools can teach anti-bullying behavior through role-playing. Schools should encourage students to be aware of sources of help."

It's also important that schools inform parents about the philosophy of bystander empowerment, so that parents don't get the wrong idea. "Some parents might be alarmed, thinking that children are being encouraged to break up fights, which is not the case," says Rigby.

Educate and discuss

Children need adults to teach them to speak up against injustice. They need to know that doing so is not tattling or snitching, but doing the right thing.

Children also need adults to help them understand that they are not alone in thinking that bullying is disturbing and wrong, and that they will be supported by their peers if they speak up.

"There is always something that any bystander can do safely. There are lots and lots of things to do. Just be flexible and keep looking for things that are going to be safe and effective for the child to do," says Davis.

Additional resources:

Rigby, Ken, Children and Bullying: How Parents and Educators Can Reduce Bullying at School (Blackwell Publishing, 2007)

Davis, Stan and Julia Davis, Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention (Research Press, 2007)

Comments from readers

"bystanders need to take a chance.......don't be quite when it comes to bullying,say something.Be loud. "
"test s a kid, as a parent, and as a teacher bullying has been part of my life. And too often I was a bystander on the wrong side of bullying incidents. Over and over again in my 25 year teaching career I struggled with what to do. The work of Committee for Children and articles like this one finally convinced me that the best hope lies with changing the culture of the school to empower bystanders. So, in retirement, I've put together a program to help guide classroom discussions of what bystander "
"As a kid, as a parent, and as a teacher bullying has been part of my life. And too often I was a bystander on the wrong side of bullying incidents. Over and over again in my 25 year teaching career I struggled with what to do. The work of Committee for Children and articles like this one finally convinced me that the best hope lies with changing the culture of the school to empower bystanders. So, in retirement, I've put together a program to help guide classroom discussions of what bystanders can do to help. It is free for educators to use and, though it is not professionally polished, those who have used the powerpoints have found it did open up the issues and help begin a positive change in culture. Teachers can download any elements of the program they'd like by visiting: Thanks for this informative article."
"I do not agree that teachers are more concerned about budget cuts than students. I am a teacher and part of the bully-free program at our middle school. Our volunteer bully-free committee meets once a week and is sincerely dedicated to eliminating bullying as much as possible. For the past 2 days alone, I have been working several hours after school each day just trying to do my part for our next bully-free meeting on Wednesday. I will absolutely not tolerate any kind of bullying on my watch. I was bullied as a middle schooler and can't stand bullies. We have severe punishments in place for students who bully. We've had a couple cases where students have had several days of ISS/OSS for only one incident that was reported. Sometimes the problem is that many students don't report it until they retaliate, then it's too late and our hands are legally tied. Our main goal in our bi-monthly bully-free meetings with kids is exactly what this article is about: empowering the bystande! rs. There will always be bullies, but if we can empower enough kids to non-violently intervene in bullying situations, then the bullying will stop. "
"I found this article very informative. My son went through 5 other boys bullying him to the extent he wanted to commit suicide in the third grade. We got him help and removed him from the school. He is an honor roll student and very outgoing, however, it seems the bullying is starting again at the new school. The faculty and staff know that these children are problem children that are bullying my children and others. Yet, my child, when the teacher doesn't do anything about a kid shoving my kid every chance he gets, defends himself by saying, 'if you don't quit, I am going to hurt you bad' my son got sent home and the bully is still shoving my son around. I have made numerous trips to the school. After, my son got sent home (this bully and my son are at the same table) my child or the bully were not moved from the table, instead my son had to sit with this boy taunting him for another 3 weeks before the teacher moved this bully away from my child. I am frustrated how the f! aculty is handleing this bullying situation and wonder how many other children are being bullied. "
"There are lots of articles on how to stop the bullying etc. but I can not find articles about how to help my daughter recover from the effects of long term bullying. She has been bullyed by a group of Christian kids for several years and they will not leave her alone. We have talked to the school and called parents - who deny their kids would do anything to hurt another kid; Christians don't do things like that (!?). Her grades have suffered and she has a feeling of hopelessness that her life will not get better no matter how hard she tries. She is 13 years old and in therapy. The teachers are more interested in the budget cuts then the students these days. It is heartbreaking for me, her mom, to watch. I would like to remove her from the public schools but we can't afford a private boarding school, and her grades wouldn't qualify her for a college prep school. She doesn't want to homeschool. I am at a complete loss as to what to do -"
"Great post. I am taking notes on bystanders and bullying and so it really helped! Thanks!"
"I think that if kids get bullied/beaten up they have the right to defend themselves as a normal human would and not be punished for being beaten up and fighting back...being bullied and fighting back then being accused of doing wrong is not right..."
"Check out the program Get Real About Violence- this is an excellent program that targets exactly what your article is about!"
"Bulleying and the bystander, Wow, my 16 year old and my 11 year old just came home from school,and was talking about a fight that happened at school today.I asked my 16 year old about this topic,and she said that there is no way she will try to stop the fight, or say something to them to not fight because she will probaly get beat up for it. Most of the people that fight are mean and will probaly hit you if you was to say something. If we could organize a group at the schools to stop the fighting, to get to those kids before they fight, and try to get them to talk things through,and work things out instead of physically fighting. Some kind of a group that can catch kidds attention, and will make them see that there is other ways to solve problems...this is an interesting subject. Thank You and God Bless."
"I drive a school bus, lately I've witnessed one child singled out by a group of children and their siblings. Even after several warnings, discussions with parents and the school the 'gang' mentality continues against the one child. I feel the child is being bullied, harrassed and intimidated by the 'gang' because he is from a poor family. I also feel the adults in the situation perpetuate the 'gang' mentality by pointing out the one child has behavior problems. I have found the one child instead of having behavior problems is actually reacting to being ganged up on by the others including the adults involved. So my question is what do I do to extinguish a situation like this?"
"I think letting kids know that bullying is wrong works well. The emphasis needs to be on the child to stand up for themself or go tell. However, I'm aganist my kids getting into an altercation with anyone. I suggest to my kids to go tell an adult. They walk home and can get into a situation with no adult to help, because of their defense for someone else. As an active person in the community, I explain to my kids that sometimes they need to speak out for others when they aren't put in harms way. There is an age appropriate time when speaking out no matter what will help. I want them to stay out of harms way first, as a kid."
"I think that religious beliefs should be kept for discussions at home. My daughter was asked by a peer if she believed in God and her schoolmate teased her about her answer. What's with that? Faith is a personal matter, not a way to put people down. I am from Europe and I really don't care for that kind of talk myself. That is bullying too and maybe adults should stop doing it, so that kids can imitate them."
"What about emotional bullying ? It may be displayed more subtlety. Though It is, I believe, as devastating as physical bullying. Moreover, emotional bullying may cause more irreparable damage to those who are one way or another victims of it. As a former elementary teacher, now a mother and a psychotherapist I have witnessed the effects emotional bullying has had on many of the children with whom I have been connected to. I have made every effort to put an end to any kind of bullying when I am witness to or see the aftermath of the crime. I have also discovered that change can take place when even just one adult takes a stand against a bully /victim situation. Furthermore, my attempts to stamp out bullying does not end with empowering only the victims and the 'bystanders'. I have found that engaging the bullies as people first and foremost, and by showing compassion towards their plights in life, I have a more compassionate' recovering bully' to work with. It is important to remember that bullies are human beings like everyone else. They often come from homes in which they are either bullied themselves or unseen and quite neglected. In my experience, bullies often crave empathy after they receive it from! adults who are willing to take the time and energy to give it. Bullies can then be taught the' how to's' of empathy and in turn develop more positive connections possibly even, dare I say, friends with their would be victims. Our task is not simply to convert one entity of the problem, but instead to cover all of the bases that we can. So, it is possible to come together to put a stop to the pain created by bullies, inflicted upon victims, and tolerated by bystanders. We need to start with compassion and empathy for one and for all."
"I was a bystander when I was in junior high...I was unequipped to deal with the bullying that took place against a friend of mine. A couple girls came up and began arguing with her. I was shy, short and new to the school. I watched in panic as they began to push her into the girls restroom. It finally came to me to run and go get help from an adult/authority. These same girls would pick on her in class. I was ashamed at my response at times...out of fear. Children should be taught to speak up for those in need. It would have been nice to have groups of young people who could come to the aid of someone in need...perhaps some sort of 'club' that stands up (positive peer pressure) would be hard, because they would have to be willing to be mocked and teased...but it would help to have a support group. "
"Great comments from the readers. I believe there needs to be more tips on antibullying on the school bus. "
"what do you do when the whole 8th grade is doing the bullying?my daughter has adhd,odd,ocd,ld,and pdd a form of autism. they all are taught about the bullying in school but it seems that they dont know that ignoring someone is also a form of bullying and the teachers say there is nothing they can do!!!!!"
"Parents please know every situation is different. Does the child get verbally involved, physically involved, or wait to talk to parents? How you instruct a child to differentiate those situations is very hard so dig deep. The only thing that helped me (I was a short skinny Asian kid) were my friends and our ability to enjoy sports that sometimes accompanied pain. Football, martial arts, and even dodge ball were sports that had tactics and goals and demanded physical discomfort. Bruises and sore muscles (I even broke my wrist twice) accompanied the activity. Once a child can measure his actions on how much pain is involved, he is better off. Not every action needs to end in a karate kid moment. Bullies need to be measured. Some are dangerous (there were organized criminal gangs in my school) and some are mostly harmless like tall boys who has attention needs by bullying shorter kids. I was always the short kid! The child needs to know these differences. Parents NE! ED to have a clue what the child is dealing with. Narc on the Latin Kings and you need to find a new school. My personal experience is if you don't scrap with that tall kid who has decided to focus his issues on the short Asian kid (that would be me) then the taunting will never end. I was bullied multiple times. I left the organized gang alone. They were always bored and loved to towel whip everyone after swim class. Just run for it baby! I did not back down on the neighborhood kid who thought I was easy prey or the jerk who thought his girl had a thing for me. In the latter cases, my athletic friends was too much to deal with so they backed off. I'm no saint, my friends jumped in during one scrap and I was able to bloody my neighbors nose. Non gang related bullying and justified. Even without friends near me he never tried fighting me again. I allowed towel whipping until I graduated 8th grade. Gangs don't back off. They have an odd sense of pride that can! get you killed. Please know the difference!"
"My family has been being bullied for about three months now, and the children that go to elementary school have been getting physicaly hurt evey day o ther bus and bus stop. my sister has informed the police but they do nothing, she has also informed the school athorities and they do nothing about the children from getting hurt. we are so upset that it has gotten so violent, and the parents of the other kids encourage them and think its ok,the other parents also have there junior high kids bullieing the younger kids of my sister. we do not know what else to do were at a lose. Is there any advice or numbers of anyone that can help? "
"I dont know about in middle school but in my school it is if you narc you get beat up I do the same to any narc, narcs are looked down on it's the person who is getting bullieds job to do something. Basically you have to stand up and be willing to fight not narc. If you cant beat them in a fight get freinds involved or fight dirty. School just like the rest of life is about servival of the fittest. But in society instead of the animal world it decides where you rank in life. Plus you over protective moms need to realize the worlds not all fluffy clouds and rainbows. I was bullied alot when I was a kid but to me just like most kids a narc is the lowest thing you can be. The only way to not be bullied is to stand up and fight back. If you look through out history only the strong survive. Every social thing in schools is based on social politics. Not narcing is based on honor. Im 16 and that stuff happens at school everyday. The most we do is tell the person to stop and! thats not cool, but unfortunatley that doesnt always work."
"I think it's terrific that bullying is now slowly becoming intolerable. I was bullied as a child and my son went through such a terrible time that we were forced to remove him from the school. Unfortunately, he was withdrawn and it followed him to the new school. We didn't know how to handle any of it. The kid that did the bullying was the leader of the pack and my son not only had to deal with one, but several. He never was the same after that. I had bus drivers and teachers that told us he was withdrawling. Counciling didn't work. Only cost us a fortune. Ironically, my son was overly trusting, looking for approval. At the age of 20,my son befriended a fellow soldier that he didn't know and went off to a club with him and was robbed and left for dead in an alley. He lived for 10 days in a coma. He died 10 days later. I firmly believe that the lack of action from the principal and other authority figures, allowing my son to come home crying, with clothes ripped,my family bei! ng called filty names indirectly did him in. The hurt on his face was heart breaking. He was 7-8 years old when this went on. He would have been 39. I applaud anyone who finally is recognizing that this does permanent and irriversable damage. Thank you Jackie Marsceill- Tims mom"
"School administrators must enforce a policy of no bullying! Without that there is no solution. For 3 years of middle school my son endured repeated physical abuse from a few bullies. This bullying affected him very deeply. Despite reporting the instances including witnesses they were never taken very seriously. We met with school officials and we helped our son with strategies but nothing helped. Often the rights of the bully were given more consideration than my sons rights. We requested more adult presence in the halls but the teachers wouldn't leave their classrooms. It wasn't until 8th grade that my son, out of desperation, stood up for himself physically. The news spread like wildfire among the students and the bullies moved on to easier targets. This was not an ideal solution but in the absence of adults who take bullying seriously children have very few options. My son is now in high school and everything is much better. The administrators of this school a! re very clear about behavior expectations and consequences. Adults are visible in every hallway when classes are changing. Students at this high school know that if they report bullying it will be believed and taken seriously. That is the key to a safe school environment. Thanks for the article and the attention to this very serious topic!"
"Excellent artcle! I am going to talk to my boys about this topic. Thanks!"
"For high school bullying, this one method worked...bully picked on me everyday, calling names,cutting me down, always doing it in front of a crowd. The dynamics were, I was shy and introverted, she was loud and abrasive. I figured out that she spoke very poorly which I used against her. The next time she verbally attacked, I launched a rehearsed littany of vocabulary about her rotteness that she could not understand (but many of the crowd did). She was extremely embarrassed and never bothered me again. "
"excellent resource information, thankyou for sending it. My step dghtr goes to schools and meets with elementary school age children and young teens to talk about bullying, strategies, etc.. She is in Kansas City, Missouri."
"I just want to thank you for this and other excellent articles about how we can create the best possible learning environment for children today. Thank you for your integrity in general and specifically in saying that the U.S. is slow on the uptake in applying some of these forward thinking programs which many countries in Europe and beyond have been using with great success for years! I personally am a strong advocate for whatever works and would love to know about other methods that are being used in the educational realm with great success. Sincerely, a teacher to be "
"excellent resource information, thankyou for sending it. My step dghtr goes to schools and meets with elementary school age children and young teens to talk about bullying, strategies, etc.. She is in Kansas City, Missouri."
"My kindergarten boy was bullied last year, but his teacher chose to ignore my pleas to help him. The principal didn't care either until I reported it to the superintendant. The bully was the son of a principal of another school in our district and the family was in denial. Bullies come from all backgrounds and this must be stopped."
"Enjoyed article Being a snitch is a no-no for my high schoolers; even the so-called good kids. The notion of empowering the by-stander is one I need more resources on. A companion issue, for my situation, is one party confronting another party about negative words being spread around the school. In these instances, the accuser or the accused uses bullying techniques to gain the upper hand. Any suggestions?"
"I agree with your article but I still have some concerns. I teach my children that they should speak up and let someone know if they see bullying. Some of the things that concern younger children is the chanting of 'Snitches get stitches' and being teased by their peers for telling. Older children may stand up to a bully and it turns into a fight. They are suspended or discipline with the bully. Most children don't like being put on the spot to identify a bully when asked by an adult. Sometime bullys confront children in the streets. This problem is in urban schools and rural schools and it concerns all parents. If bystanders agree together that bullying is wrong and they stand together the bully may back off. Children are afraid today in my opinion, because of all the violents in schools and the potential of being seriously hurt. This problem is in all schools. Do we need cameras in the classrooms and hallways? I know it want solve all of our problems. Most children who bul! ly are victims of something wrong in their lives. Will it ever end? We have to teach our children to stand up for what is right and how to handle it without being violent themselves. Some children don't say anything because they feel nothing will be done or the bully may just get suspended and return to school. We have to educate our children that they are not alone and find others who feel the same way they do and let someone in authority know what is going on. Thank you for allowing me to feedback on this problem."
"Very nice article. Wish I could have read it year before last when my daughter, the new kid at her elementary was being 'bullied' I hope this helps Moms and kids alike. It should give them ammunition to stop the problem that is on the rise. Thank you from a concerned parent in SE Oklahoma"
"This is a great project and long over due. I see the thrust of this movement as one of teaching the use of 'peer pressure'. I am sure it can become effective, but there needs to be strong and decisive support by the adults to discipline the bully. As a reflection on our culture, I offer the following article about this issue at the next level. /ca On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs (From the book, On Combat, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman) 'Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve defending, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The question remains: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?' - William J. Bennett In a lecture to the United States Naval Academy November 24, 1997 One Vietnam veteran, an old retired colonel, once said this to me: “Most of the people in our society are sheep. They are kind, gentle, productive creatures who can only hurt one another by accident.” This is true. Remember, the murder rate is six per 100,000 per year, and the aggravated assault rate is four per 1,000 per year. What this means is that the vast majority of Americans are not inclined to hurt one another. Some estimates say that two million Americans are victims of violent crimes every year, a tragic, staggering number, perhaps an all-time record rate of violent crime. But there are almost 300 million Americans, which means that the odds of being a victim of violent crime is considerably less than one in a hundred on any given year. Furthermore, since many violent crimes are committed by repeat offenders, the actual number of violent citizens is considerably less than two million. Thus there is a paradox, and we must grasp both ends of the situation: We may well be in the most violent times in history, but violence is still remarkably rare. This is because most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation. They are sheep. I mean nothing negative by calling them sheep. To me it is like the pretty, blue robin’s egg. Inside it is soft and gooey but someday it will grow into something wonderful. But the egg cannot survive without its hard blue shell. Police officers, soldiers and other warriors are like that shell, and someday the civilization they protect will grow into something wonderful. For now, though, they need warriors to protect them from the predators. “Then there are the wolves,” the old war veteran said, “and the wolves feed on the sheep without mercy.” Do you believe there are wolves out there who will feed on the flock without mercy? You better believe it. There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial. “Then there are sheepdogs,” he went on, “and I’m a sheepdog. I live to protect the flock and confront the wolf.” Or, as a sign in one California law enforcement agency put it, “We intimidate those who intimidate others.” If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed. The gift of aggression 'What goes on around you... compares little with what goes on inside you.' - Ralph Waldo Emerson Everyone has been given a gift in life. Some people have a gift for science and some have a flair for art. And warriors have been given the gift of aggression. They would no more misuse this gift than a doctor would misuse his healing arts, but they yearn for the opportunity to use their gift to help others. These people, the ones who have been blessed with the gift of aggression and a love for others, are our sheepdogs. These are our warriors. One career police officer wrote to me about this after attending one of my Bulletproof Mind training sessions: 'I want to say thank you for finally shedding some light on why it is that I can do what I do. I always knew why I did it. I love my [citizens], even the bad ones, and had a talent that I could return to my community. I just couldn’t put my finger on why I could wade through the chaos, the gore, the sadness, if given a chance try to make it all better, and walk right out the other side.' Let me expand on this old soldier’s excellent model of the sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. We know that the sheep live in denial; that is what makes them sheep. They do not want to believe that there is evil in the world. They can accept the fact that fires can happen, which is why they want fire extinguishers, fire sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits throughout their kids’ schools. But many of them are outraged at the idea of putting an armed police officer in their kid’s school. Our children are dozens of times more likely to be killed, and thousands of times more likely to be seriously injured, by school violence than by school fires, but the sheep’s only response to the possibility of violence is denial. The idea of someone coming to kill or harm their children is just too hard, so they choose the path of denial. The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours. Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land. They would prefer that he didn’t tell them where to go, or give them traffic tickets, or stand at the ready in our airports in camouflage fatigues holding an M-16. The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go, “Baa.” Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog. As Kipling said in his poem about “Tommy” the British soldier: While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Tommy, fall be'ind,' But it's 'Please to walk in front, sir,' when there's trouble in the wind, There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind, O it's 'Please to walk in front, sir,' when there's trouble in the wind. The students, the victims, at Columbine High School were big, tough high school students, and under ordinary circumstances they would not have had the time of day for a police officer. They were not bad kids; they just had nothing to say to a cop. When the school was under attack, however, and SWAT teams were clearing the rooms and hallways, the officers had to physically peel those clinging, sobbing kids off of them. This is how the little lambs feel about their sheepdog when the wolf is at the door. Look at what happened after September 11, 2001, when the wolf pounded hard on the door. Remember how America, more than ever before, felt differently about their law enforcement officers and military personnel? Remember how many times you heard the word hero? Understand that there is nothing morally superior about being a sheepdog; it is just what you choose to be. Also understand that a sheepdog is a funny critter: He is always sniffing around out on the perimeter, checking the breeze, barking at things that go bump in the night, and yearning for a righteous battle. That is, the young sheepdogs yearn for a righteous battle. The old sheepdogs are a little older and wiser, but they move to the sound of the guns when needed right along with the young ones. Here is how the sheep and the sheepdog think differently. The sheep pretend the wolf will never come, but the sheepdog lives for that day. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, most of the sheep, that is, most citizens in America said, “Thank God I wasn’t on one of those planes.” The sheepdogs, the warriors, said, “Dear God, I wish I could have been on one of those planes. Maybe I could have made a difference.” When you are truly transformed into a warrior and have truly invested yourself into warriorhood, you want to be there. You want to be able to make a difference. While there is nothing morally superior about the sheepdog, the warrior, he does have one real advantage. Only one. He is able to survive and thrive in an environment that destroys 98 percent of the population. There was research conducted a few years ago with individuals convicted of violent crimes. These cons were in prison for serious, predatory acts of violence: assaults, murders and killing law enforcement officers. The vast majority said that they specifically targeted victims by body language: slumped walk, passive behavior and lack of awareness. They chose their victims like big cats do in Africa, when they select one out of the herd that is least able to protect itself. However, when there were cues given by potential victims that indicated they would not go easily, the cons said that they would walk away. If the cons sensed that the target was a 'counter-predator,' that is, a sheepdog, they would leave him alone unless there was no other choice but to engage. One police officer told me that he rode a commuter train to work each day. One day, as was his usual, he was standing in the crowded car, dressed in blue jeans, T-shirt and jacket, holding onto a pole and reading a paperback. At one of the stops, two street toughs boarded, shouting and cursing and doing every obnoxious thing possible to intimidate the other riders. The officer continued to read his book, though he kept a watchful eye on the two punks as they strolled along the aisle making comments to female passengers, and banging shoulders with men as they passed. As they approached the officer, he lowered his novel and made eye contact with them. “You got a problem, man?” one of the IQ-challenged punks asked. “You think you’re tough, or somethin’?” the other asked, obviously offended that this one was not shirking away from them. “As a matter of fact, I am tough,” the officer said, calmly and with a steady gaze. The two looked at him for a long moment, and then without saying a word, turned and moved back down the aisle to continue their taunting of the other passengers, the sheep. Some people may be destined to be sheep and others might be genetically primed to be wolves or sheepdogs. But I believe that most people can choose which one they want to be, and I’m proud to say that more and more Americans are choosing to become sheepdogs. Seven months after the attack on September 11, 2001, Todd Beamer was honored in his hometown of Cranbury, New Jersey. Todd, as you recall, was the man on Flight 93 over Pennsylvania who called on his cell phone to alert an operator from United Airlines about the hijacking. When he learned of the other three passenger planes that had been used as weapons, Todd dropped his phone and uttered the words, “Let’s roll,” which authorities believe was a signal to the other passengers to confront the terrorist hijackers. In one hour, a transformation occurred among the passengers--athletes, business people and parents--from sheep to sheepdogs and together they fought the wolves, ultimately saving an unknown number of lives on the ground. “Do you have any idea how hard it would be to live with yourself after that?” 'here is no safety for honest men except by believing all possible evil of evil men.' - Edmund Burke Reflections on the Revolution in France Here is the point I like to emphasize, especially to the thousands of police officers and soldiers I speak to each year. In nature the sheep, real sheep, are born as sheep. Sheepdogs are born that way, and so are wolves. They didn’t have a choice. But you are not a critter. As a human being, you can be whatever you want to be. It is a conscious, moral decision. If you want to be a sheep, then you can be a sheep and that is okay, but you must understand the price you pay. When the wolf comes, you and your loved ones are going to die if there is not a sheepdog there to protect you. If you want to be a wolf, you can be one, but the sheepdogs are going to hunt you down and you will never have rest, safety, trust or love. But if you want to be a sheepdog and walk the warrior’s path, then you must make a conscious and moral decision every day to dedicate, equip and prepare yourself to thrive in that toxic, corrosive moment when the wolf comes knocking at the door. For example, many officers carry their weapons in church. They are well concealed in ankle holsters, shoulder holsters or inside-the-belt holsters tucked into the small of their backs. Anytime you go to some form of religious service, there is a very good chance that a police officer in your congregation is carrying. You will never know if there is such an individual in your place of worship, until the wolf appears to slaughter you and your loved ones. I was training a group of police officers in Texas, and during the break, one officer asked his friend if he carried his weapon in church. The other cop replied, “I will never be caught without my gun in church.” I asked why he felt so strongly about this, and he told me about a police officer he knew who was at a church massacre in Ft. Worth, Texas, in 1999. In that incident, a mentally deranged individual came into the church and opened fire, gunning down 14 people. He said that officer believed he could have saved every life that day if he had been carrying his gun. His own son was shot, and all he could do was throw himself on the boy’s body and wait to die. That cop looked me in the eye and said, “Do you have any idea how hard it would be to live with yourself after that?” Some individuals would be horrified if they knew this police officer was carrying a weapon in church. They might call him paranoid and would probably scorn him. Yet these same individuals would be enraged and would call for “heads to roll” if they found out that the airbags in their cars were defective, or that the fire extinguisher and fire sprinklers in their kids’ school did not work. They can accept the fact that fires and traffic accidents can happen and that there must be safeguards against them. Their only response to the wolf, though, is denial, and all too often their response to the sheepdog is scorn and disdain. But the sheepdog quietly asks himself, “Do you have any idea how hard it would be to live with yourself if your loved ones were attacked and killed, and you had to stand there helplessly because you were unprepared for that day?” The warrior must cleanse denial from his thinking. Coach Bob Lindsey, a renowned law enforcement trainer, says that warriors must practice “when/then” thinking, not “if/when.” Instead of saying,“If it happens then I will take action,” the warrior says, “When it happens then I will be ready.” It is denial that turns people into sheep. Sheep are psychologically destroyed by combat because their only defense is denial, which is counterproductive and destructive, resulting in fear, helplessness and horror when the wolf shows up. Denial kills you twice. It kills you once, at your moment of truth when you are not physically prepared: You didn’t bring your gun; you didn’t train. Your only defense was wishful thinking. Hope is not a strategy. Denial kills you a second time because even if you do physically survive, you are psychologically shattered by fear, helplessness, horror and shame at your moment of truth. Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot and first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, says that he knew he could die. There was no denial for him. He did not allow himself the luxury of denial. This acceptance of reality can cause fear, but it is a healthy, controlled fear that will keep you alive: 'I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit.' - Brigadier General Chuck Yeager Yeager, An Autobiography Gavin de Becker puts it like this in Fear Less, his superb post-9/11 book, which should be required reading for anyone trying to come to terms with our current world situation: '..denial can be seductive, but it has an insidious side effect. For all the peace of mind deniers think they get by saying it isn’t so, the fall they take when faced with new violence is all the more unsettling. Denial is a save-now-pay-later scheme, a contract written entirely in small print, for in the long run, the denying person knows the truth on some level.' And so the warrior must strive to confront denial in all aspects of his life, and prepare himself for the day when evil comes. If you are a warrior who is legally authorized to carry a weapon and you step outside without that weapon, then you become a sheep, pretending that the bad man will not come today. No one can be “on” 24/7 for a lifetime. Everyone needs down time. But if you are authorized to carry a weapon, and you walk outside without it, just take a deep breath, and say this to yourself... “Baa.” This business of being a sheep or a sheepdog is not a yes-no dichotomy. It is not an all-or-nothing, either-or choice. It is a matter of degrees, a continuum. On one end is an abject, head-in-the-grass sheep and on the other end is the ultimate warrior. Few people exist completely on one end or the other. Most of us live somewhere in between. Since 9-11 almost everyone in America took a step up that continuum, away from denial. The sheep took a few steps toward accepting and appreciating their warriors, and the warriors started taking their job more seriously. The degree to which you move up that continuum, away from sheephood and denial, is the degree to which you and your loved ones will survive, physically and psychologically at your moment of truth. "
"I was being picked on in the 7th grade by a girl in my gym class for no reason. One day after class, she followed me to my locker & cornered me in a threatening manner. I didn't know what to do. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw the leg of another girl kick open the locker door (one of those elongated ones). She got in between us & stood up to my bully. She stared her in the face & said,'LEAVE HER ALONE!' My bully never bothered me again! BTW, the girl who stuck up for me was shorter than me AND the bully! Sometimes in these situations, size really doesn't matter! Later, in high school, I was picked on again by 2 girls who were jealous of my grades. This time, I stood up to them myself & that was the end of that!"