Saturday, June 16, 2012

To Help, Or Not to Help

I read a news story recently about a teenage boy who was at school and started having trouble breathing. He had an inhaler at school, the prescription label was in his name, he went to the school nurse's office because he couldn't breathe, but the nurse would not administer the medication because there was a consent form that was missing a parent signature. The boy lost consciousness because the nurse chose to follow the rules and not administer medication without the signed consent form. I understand that she was probably afraid of losing her job, afraid of having trouble finding another job after being fired for not following protocol, afraid of prosecution, etc.; the boy was afraid for his life. I have been watching to see what happens and I'm saddened to see that the school is standing behind her decision to follow policy rather than act to help a student. And this is certainly not the first time I have heard of people being afraid to intervene to help someone because of the potential negative consequences.

This story reminded me of one of our favorite picture books, “Library Lion” by Michelle Knudsen.

Miss Merriweather, the head librarian, is very particular about rules in the library. No running allowed. And you must be quiet. But when a lion comes to the library one day, no one is sure what to do. There aren’t any rules about lions in the library. And, as it turns out, this lion seems very well suited to library visiting. His big feet are quiet on the library floor. He makes a comfy backrest for the children at story hour. And he never roars in the library, at least not anymore. But when something terrible happens, the lion quickly comes to the rescue in the only way he knows how.

When Miss Merriweather falls and gets hurt and no one can hear her call for help except the lion, he has to decide quickly what to do. The lion runs (which is against the rules) to get help and tries to indicate to the other librarian what has happened. But the librarian refuses to pay attention to the lion, so the lion does the one thing he knows will get attention—he roars (which is also against the rules) loudly enough that he cannot be ignored. He knows that he is breaking the rules and is willing to accept the consequences, not being allowed back in the library, for the sake of helping someone. Of course the lion was forgiven for breaking the rules under these circumstances and was allowed to continue visiting the library. The moral of the story being that we have rules to help us all but sometimes there is a good reason to break the rules.

It also makes me think, yet again, about our brief but eventful preschool experience. While he was there, my son was really bothered by another boy in his class who would often push and hit other children. I understand that this other boy had some social/emotional/sensory issues and was doing his best to cope with the environment. My son wanted to stop him from hurting people. He would step into the middle of the conflicts and tell this boy to stop, and sometimes use his body to block him. He was reprimanded for this and told that it was “not his job” to intervene, that he “is not the boss”, and that the proper action is to alert a teacher. It makes sense to tell a teacher when something like this happens, but in the meantime someone could be injured. And once the teachers have been alerted (repeatedly) that this keeps happening, there was no further course of action laid out for the students. What are students supposed to do when it keeps happening and the teachers are not taking measures to prevent it, are not stepping in immediately to stop it, and are saying that his attempts to help others are a behavior problem?

On the Penn State campus, just telling the right person wasn't enough to stop atrocities—when the proper authorities don't do what they should, there needs to be further action taken. I don't mean vigilante action. I mean continuing to speak up and speak out and seek out assistance from higher or different authorities. Roar like a Library Lion! I don't want my son to learn that it is “not his job” to help people. He respectfully and non-violently stood up for people who needed help—it's everyone's job to do this. We are teaching children so early on (starting in preschool at least) not to help people when they have the opportunity. When people are taught their whole lives to just stand by and hope the person in charge will do the right thing, it is not surprising really that a school nurse could just not help a student having an asthma attack because of policy, or that people could report a heinous crime on a college campus and then do nothing further to stop it, or that there is rampant bullying in schools.

Barbara Coloroso wrote a great book called “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander”. She relates bullying that happens among children to much larger scale atrocities like genocides and explains how bullying (and genocide) cannot happen without the complicity of the bystanders: there are no innocent bystanders. Her Bully Handout illustrates the roles of various participants in bullying, and is followed by some good tips for parents. Her Three Characters Handout explains the roles more in depth and highlights the one role that can stop the cycle of violence: the Defender/Resister/Witness. If just one person or small group of people, speaks out against the bully, protects and defends the bullied, and speaks up for the targets of the bully, others will follow the lead and begin to resist as well. (The Girl Scouts use an anti-bullying training called Power Up that focuses on teaching bystanders what they can do, and they have a great slogan: Doing nothing? Not an option.) Coloroso cites evidence that this effect has been demonstrated within genocidal regimes. It has also been demonstrated in the Asch Conformity Studies and the Milgram Obedience Studies that people often go along with a group or an authority figure, even when they know it is wrong, until someone else speaks up; but once someone else speaks up, others are more likely to do so as well. There is no inherent difference between the people who speak up and those who don't. It is just a matter of which choice each person makes in the moment, to help or not to help. But we can prepare ourselves for these moments so that we can make better choices when the time comes. 

My son and I spend a lot of time playing heroes and villains. In our fantasy lives, we have fought all kinds of people doing harm to others and we have saved the world, a lot. Fortunately, in real life we almost certainly will never be in a position to actually save the world in the epic fashion of our dramatic play, or from a genocidal regime. But our play is good practice for standing up to people who are hurting others and helping people who are being bullied or oppressed. It gives us a chance to tap into that part of ourselves that is (or at least wants to be) an epic hero and to get comfortable in that role, making the choices a hero would make and taking the actions a hero would take. And I like to think that the smaller acts in our real lives, like stepping in and saying, “Hey, don't push him!” again and again, even when the people in charge tell you not to do it, are the kind of things that create a positive difference in the communities that make up our world.


  1. Great post, Angela. Your words are inspiring and remind us all to take responsibility and help our children feel that they can do so as well.

  2. wow, i love this post, so insightful! i hadn't considered before that part of the problem (maybe even the biggest part?) with bullying is not just the kids who are doing the bullying, but the willingness of the bystanders to let it happen by not intervening. i love the story about your son and applaud him for stepping in, and completely disagree with the stance the teachers took! telling a kid (or anyone) that someone else getting hurt is none of their business makes no sense to me at all, and i think you hit the nail on the head with relating that kind of teaching with that nurse's actions. the fact that your son continued to break the rules in order to do the right thing and defend another shows such strong and beautiful character.