To Tell on a Bully or Not? Even Savvy Fifth-Graders Aren’t Sure

Deborah Sosin
Jul 19 · 4 min read

When I was in fifth grade, sometime in the Pleistocene era, I had a crush on Ricky Morrison, the cutest, smartest kid in the class. He played trumpet. I played cello. When he wasn’t ignoring me, he would kick me, just for fun, surely a sign of his undying affection, I told myself. One night, I wrote in my diary, “Today was really great. Ricky hit me over the head hard with his books. I hit him back. It was neat.”

Neat. Not exactly a word one associates with physical assault.

It helps to understand the times. Back then, the mid-1960s, there was no anti-bullying curriculum for kids. Or “Open Circle” or “peace tables,” where children talk about their feelings and work out their differences. If we had a conflict, we hit each other. If we had a crush, we still hit each other. It’s just the way it was — unrestrained aggression as a manifestation of all things prepubescent.

And nary an adult in sight. If the adults did notice, they never said a word. Maybe they thought it was normal. Maybe they thought we’d outgrow it. As free-range children, perhaps we were left to sort — or duke — it out. It never occurred to me to report Ricky. If I had told, we probably both would’ve gotten in trouble and then, in my eleven-year-old mind, he’d never pay attention to me again.

Today’s parents and teachers are ever-present — monitoring and managing the verbal and physical nuances of children’s behavior, coaching them at every developmental junction. Children are taught early to use their words, not their fists. They study conflict resolution and practice “I statements.” Some schools offer empathy training to help children be kind to others — to act as “upstanders” or “allies.”

Good news, right? The more awareness and kindness the better in our anger-filled, reactive culture. But what do the children really think?

For the past fifteen years, I’ve volunteered with a child abuse prevention program that offers interactive workshops to elementary-school children. We emphasize the importance of identifying “trusted adults” to whom they can report a problem such as bullying or unwanted touch. We urge them to “tell, tell, tell” (and discuss how telling is different from tattling) and to keep telling until they find someone who will listen, take them seriously, and get help so it doesn’t happen again.

Now, the bad news: curricular progress notwithstanding, many fifth-graders still hesitate to tell. They harbor the same worries and insecurities as adults do about “speaking truth to power”: What if I’m not believed? What if I’m judged? What if the abuser retaliates? What if telling makes everything worse?

I learned about their fears because after each workshop, we ask them to write down their answer to the following question, anonymously: “What worries would you have to overcome to tell an adult about a problem?”

I noticed three general themes: 1) lack of confidence: “I’m too shy to speak up”; 2) self-recrimination: “I’m embarrassed to ask for help; I should have known better”; and 3) fear of retaliation: “If I tell, everything will just get worse.”

It’s this last point that caught my attention. One child wrote, “I would worry that the person I tell would start a rumor about what I told them.” Another said, “I’d worry that I would get bullied again no matter what.” Still another had tried and seemingly failed to be heard: “I was bullied and it was hard because it happened so much that after a while of telling my teacher I felt that I was wasting her time.”

Even though children are taught that they have the right to ask for help — and, certainly, countless kids are heard and believed and helped — some have low expectations: “The adult might freak out/overreact. Or get mad. Or be disappointed”; or “They might not believe you because you’re just a ‘kid.’”

One child wrote, “What if the abuser makes up excuses or lies about what happened?”

We don’t have to think too hard to conjure examples of adult assault victims who have told, yielding zero consequences for their powerful perpetrators. Witness Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh; or columnist E. Jean Carroll’s recent rape allegation against Donald Trump. Hers is one of nearly two dozen such charges leveled against the serial bully who still occupies the Oval Office without accountability — blaming his accusers, denying any involvement, and threatening retribution. How many more women are out there who have never told?

One child captured the problem succinctly: “One reason it would be hard [to tell] is that sometimes it can feel like adults have a lot more power over you.” And, even for adults, the powerful often prevail.

Can we blame our children for worrying about telling? What, if any, messages are they absorbing from the larger culture? Or will they be free to chart their own, more enlightened, path someday? As we collectively ride the wave of the #MeToo era, the answers remain elusive.

After the workshop, we ask the kids to respond to a second question: “What advice would you give to a friend who is afraid to tell a grownup about a problem?” As you can see, today’s fifth-graders have much wisdom to offer us all:

“If you don’t tell, they win.”

“Stand up to whoever made the problem or else it will never get solved.”

“Whatever someone did to you is wrong and you should tell. Even if the person might get mad at you, you should still tell. If you don’t tell, the person might try to do it again and even if they don’t, they might try to do it to someone else.”

And finally, “Don’t let them take your joy.”

Deborah Sosin

Written by

Deborah Sosin is a writer, editor, psychotherapist, and author of Charlotte and the Quiet Place, a picture book; and Breaking Free of Addiction, a workbook.

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