Why We’re All Responsible for Taking the Fight Against Bullying Up a Notch

One in four American children will be verbally or physically harassed this year, and we all need to be part of stopping it.

(Illustration: Neil Webb/Getty Images)

Nov 14, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Marlo Thomas is an American actress, producer, and social activist.

I once watched my father break up a fight. He was walking me home from school, and we passed by four boys on the sidewalk, three of them menacing the fourth, who was smaller and looked scared. Just as we approached, the biggest of the boys threw a punch at the little one, and it landed. Dad was outraged.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” he hollered, separating the children and gathering the bullied boy beneath one arm. “Go home!” he admonished the big kids, and they scattered like rats.

A half century later, I’ve never forgotten that moment. The small boy’s terror, my father’s fury—it has all stayed with me.

One in four children in this country will be trapped in a similar scenario this year, desperate for safety, helpless to the consequences of child-on-child cruelty, fighting for their lives.

That means that for one in four of our kids—our grandkids, our nieces and nephews, our neighbors’ children—school is no longer a safe haven for learning. Instead, it is a private battlefront, bricked off from the view of parents and guardians and teachers who are, astonishingly, unaware of the torment that is being inflicted on their kids. The same can be said about school buses, cell phones, the Internet, and more, where children may be exposed to bullying.

All too often, these children will not speak out about what is happening to them. Some will sink into depression. Others will skip school. And in some cases—unspeakable cases, when it all gets to be too much—some will take their own life.

In 2011, I launched an anti-bullying campaign led by the Ad Council. Our mission is straightforward: to expose and eradicate the deadly epidemic of bullying in America by empowering parents with the tools and resources they need to teach their kids the safe, simple, yet powerful actions children can take to help stop bullying. We will not give up on this fight.

We are not alone in this critical battle. Across the country, children have begun to step forward, recognizing the danger in their midst and doing what they can to stem the tide.

One year ago in York, Pa., second grader Christian Bucks noticed a small clutch of his classmates cowering by themselves on the playground during recess. Sensing their isolation and loneliness, he created what he called a “buddy bench”—a simple schoolyard seat painted in vibrant colors that he quickly declared a place for “our dream circle of friends.” His effort was acknowledged, and joined, by his school principal.

Last month in Calgary, Alberta, 11th grader Caitlin Prater-Haacke suffered a paralyzing teen indignity when someone broke into her locker and used her iPad to post hateful comments on her Facebook page. Rather than surrender her dignity, Caitlin fought back with “posts” of her own, plastering her hometown with neon-colored Post-it notes, each one bearing a positive message, such as “You’re awesome” or “You’re a great friend.” In response to her outreach, her local city council created “Positive Post-It Day” throughout the community.

That these children are taking it upon themselves to fight back against bullying is both admirable and hopeful. But the truth is, the key to building this kind of proactivism in kids lies with their parents. Research tells us that when parents talk to their sons and daughters about bullying—asking questions, listening carefully, offering strategies—their children are more likely to take action when they witness bullying. And when bystanders intervene, studies say, bullying stops within 10 seconds more than half of the time.

Many parents are not properly prepared for this kind of conversation. To be sure, they are concerned about bullying, but usually only when it directly impacts their own child. That’s why the Ad Council, the brilliant nonprofit behind such landmark campaigns as Smokey Bear and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” has joined me in amping up our outreach to parents about bullying.

Since 2012, ourBe More Than a Bystander” campaign has ignited a powerful conversation in this country, providing parents with the tools, information, and resources they need to talk to their children about what to do when they witness bullying firsthand and the safe steps they can take to intervene.

With nearly $80 million in donated media support, the PSA campaign has achieved enormous and vital exposure. As a result, 45 percent of parents have become aware of the campaign message, and research shows that significantly more parents say they’ve spoken to their child’s school about bullying and have looked for bullying-related information and resources online. We need to continue this positive momentum. The Ad Council is also partnering with Tilt, the world’s largest crowdfunding platform, with a goal of raising $100,000 by December. The donations will be spent to create new groundbreaking work for the bullying prevention campaign. Change.org and Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company, will also be working pro bono to raise awareness of this crucial conversation and to garner more support.

I encourage you to stop by StopBullying.Tilt.com and become a part of this urgent effort. I hope you will join me in supporting this issue that is so close to my heart and the hearts of millions of families. With your help, more parents will know how to step in and make the lives of so many children that much happier and safer. As my father taught me that day on the street so long ago, it does not take a fist or a weapon to fight back against bullies. It simply takes a heart. Please join me in this important mission. The lives of your kids—our kids—are at stake.