We like to believe that all children are inherently good, that they do not intentionally desire to hurt or cause pain to others. Yet, as all mothers and teachers know, children can be mean. Siblings fight and hurt each other – often on a daily, or even on a minute-by-minute, basis. Girls and boys in school exclude classmates, form cliques, taunt their peers, and inflict emotional pain on their counterparts. Many social and educational experts will say this is all part of growing up, that children need to learn resilience and tolerance; they need to build inner strength. And this is true – to an extent. But where do we draw the line? Where do we – as mothers and fathers and educators and rabbis, simply members of a community – say “enough”? How do we teach kids to be nicer to each other?
A great deal has been made in recent years about bullying. This common behavior has finally been recognized as very harmful to children, and various approaches are used to try to stop it. Some schools and parents stress changing the behavior of the bully. Others emphasize teaching the victim social skills for self protection. Although both of these approaches are valid, this article is less about the bully and his victim and more about the role of the peer. How do we teach our children to advocate for their classmates and counterparts, to stand up to bad behavior, and to intervene when they see someone being hurt – whether at home, school, or camp, really just about anywhere? How do we teach the Jewish value of being an “Upstander”?
It’s in the Torah!
What is an Upstander? I only learned of this term two years ago, when our children’s Jewish day school, here in Miami Beach, implemented a program called “Don’t Be a Bystander, Be an Upstander!” This program explained to both children and parents the importance of being responsible for each other – meaning that, if you see someone being unkind to another person, if you see or hear bullying, if you see bad behavior, don’t just stand by, and think “Oh, it’s not my problem,” or “Someone else will take care of it but not me,” or “I’m too scared to do anything because I don’t want to be the bully’s next target.” This is bystander behavior. Instead, we must all be Upstanders. That is, we must take a stance and stand up to whatever bad behavior we see, and we must help to make it right. Sometimes this might mean confronting the bully directly. Or it might mean telling a teacher or causing a distraction. Sometimes it might simply require taking the child that is being bullied aside and being his or her friend. Being a bystander and doing nothing only perpetuates the bad behavior, sets a negative pattern in motion, and detaches us from being accountable for one another.
Alternatively, being an Upstander is the Torah way. As the Torah says: “Lo sa’amod al dam re’echa – do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16). Do not stand by, do not look the other way, do not do nothing, the Torah says. It is our obligation to take action when we see wrong being inflicted upon others. This is indeed a Torah commandment and G-d is teaching us that we have the power to do something, to make a change, to stand up, to be an Upstander.
To take this message even further, we can look to Pirkei Avos, where it is written: “Hillel would say, ‘Heve misalmidav shel Aharon: ohev shalom, verodef shalom, ohev es habriyos…’ – Be of the disciples of Aaron, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.’”
Do not just love peace, says Hillel, you must actually run after peace. You must take action to ensure peace; you must stand up and make peace. This action, says Hillel, is what defines love for all of G-d’s creatures and what brings us closer to Torah. Because Torah is not just about loving peace; it is about creating peace as well.
This concept of being an Upstander spoke to me on a deep level, and made me realize that each of us – no matter who we are, no matter how young we are or how popular or unpopular we are – has the ability to be powerful and to make a difference, just by stepping in and standing up.
I decided to start telling my kids new bedtime stories with my own imaginative superheroes called The Upstander Superheroes. These three superheroes would magically appear whenever they saw a child being unkind to another. Every night, the story was different, but the message was the same: Be an Upstander! Help your classmate, your friend, your sibling, and your fellow camper. Be powerful. Do something! Be a hero!
My kids loved these stores and would beg for them every night. I decided to parlay this bedtime story success into a published children’s book, The Upstander Superheroes, and then into a second published children’s book, The Upstander Superheroes on the Basketball Court. I employed the help of our brilliant school psychologist to help me frame and angle the stories in an age-appropriate way for children in grades K-4. An amazing illustrator drew the vivid and lively pictures, which added extra emotion to the storyline. Together, we read the books in each classroom, sold the books at the school’s book fairs, and held classroom discussions about what it meant to be an Upstander. Teachers and administrators publicly recognized students who behaved as Upstanders.
An amazing thing happened! There was a domino effect. The more children were Upstanders, the more other children wanted to be Upstanders. The behavior took on a life of its own, and the power of being an Upstander proved itself to be an important force in school life.
Of course, as with all educational tools and lessons, the message has to be reinforced often, both in the classroom and in the home. But the Upstander trend is taking off, and children are internalizing what it means to really be an Upstander and how it is indeed the Jewish way.
Although The Upstander Superhero books are published by a secular publisher, the underlying message in the books is a fundamentally Jewish one – that we are all responsible for one another and cannot just stand idly by when we see another child being hurt. We must not only love peace but run after peace, create peace, cultivate peace, and actively sustain peace. This is what the Upstander Superheroes are all about. They are about each child seeing him or her self as a superhero, who possesses magical powers just by standing up and protecting others.
Children as Superheroes
Even a seemingly small negative incident can have a major impact on a child’s life for many years, perhaps even for a lifetime. A child who is intentionally excluded from playing a game on the playground or who is taunted at school can suffer, G-d forbid, years of isolation and low self-esteem. All is takes is one classmate to pull this excluded child aside, and say, “Hey, I’ll play with you” or “Let’s play our own game” or “Don’t listen to them, I’m your friend.” The positivity and camaraderie and relief that result from these seemingly small interventions, too, can leave drastic impressions and affect a child’s life forever in a good way.
This is exactly why the Torah says, “Do not stand idly by.” It is because we do not know which small occurrence or which small intervention might change a person’s life forever. It is our responsibility as Klal Yisrael to look out for each other always – in every situation and in whatever way we can. In doing so, we become our own superheroes in G-d’s eyes. And by harnessing our magical powers to positively change another person’s life, we magically change our own.
Elissa Ciment, MPH, graduated from Barnard College and The Boston University School of Public Health. She lives in Miami Beach with her husband and children. The Upstander Superheroes books are available on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and at Torah Treasures in Miami Beach.