Children with status erroneously believe that the reason untouchables have no social status is because they are repulsive, but in truth, it is precisely the reverse. The lack of social status is what makes an untouchable appear repulsive. This is why the single most effective peer intervention for eliminating bullying is for children to befriend(link is external) those who are targets. But out of fear that associating with an untouchable could result in their own fall down the social ladder, children manufacture reasons to dislike low-status children, and justify their refusal to spend social capital to help them.
This childhood game of social status plays out in adulthood. When Harvey Weinstein had power and status, everyone was “afraid to say anything about him other than ‘Thank you, thank you, Harvey’” says Peter Biskind(link is external), who wrote a book about the film industry. After the public revelations about Weinstein, director Quentin Tarantino admitted(link is external), “I knew enough to do more than I did.” Instead, however, he benefited for years from being associated with Weinstein, who is described as having been Tarantino’s “greatest champion.” Tarantino is not alone in choosing not to spend social capital to defend those without much status. Going against someone at the top of the status hierarchy is risky. In those situations, although people may want to speak out, stand up, or fight back, they are often counseled not to. It rarely seems like a good idea. Even someone with as much status as Jane Fonda(link is external), although she knew, “didn’t feel that it was [her] place.”
Parents teach this kind of thinking early. They tell their children to “walk away” when they see a child being mean to another child. “Don’t fight other people’s battles,” they advise. “Avoid the drama” they say. As a rule, we don’t teach children to tend, defend, and befriend those without social status––to spend social capital on them. While some mothers I’ve asked believe in bystander intervention in theory, in practice, no parent has ever told me that they actively encourage their children to stand up for or befriend socially isolated children. One mother of an especially high-status child (a “popular” girl) told me that while it’s not okay with her for her daughter to be “unkind” to anyone, she doesn’t believe in telling her daughter to befriend bullied children because she feels strongly that her daughter has the right to choose her own friends without parental interference.
After two years of hell at school and four separate physical attacks, Natalie Hampton finally escaped the school where no one defended her. Today, she’s a vibrant, happy senior in high school. She has lots of friends, and she looks forward to graduation. Her transformation began on her first day of high school, when, just like before, Natalie didn’t know anyone. This time, however, another student, seeing that she looked lost, befriended her. “It saved my life,” Natalie reveals in her TEDx Teen talk(link is external).
All it took was one person. With one friend, she was no longer untouchable. She could make other friends––and she did. For two years, Natalie Hampton ate lunch alone. So after she changed schools, whenever she saw someone eating lunch alone(link is external), she would invite them to join her friends at their table. She knew that by saying “sit with us,” she protected other children from becoming untouchable. “Each time, the person’s face would light up, and the look of relief would wash over [it],” she says. “Some of those people have become some of my closest friends.” Natalie was willing to give up her social capital, but she discovered that when a person has friends, spending social capital by befriending those without it lifts people up without bringing anyone down. If “sit with us” became the ethos in middle school, bullying would be a thing of the past.
Today, Natalie is famous for having created Sit With Us, the phone-based anti-bullying app that helps kids find a welcoming place to eat in their school cafeteria. It’s her way to encourage other children to befriend kids who don’t have social support at school. She has been profiled in Seventeen Magazine, Teen Vogue, and the Washington Post; interviewed by NPR; won multiple awards; named one of “25 Women Changing the World” by People Magazine, and she was honored with the Outstanding Youth Delegate Award at the United Nations Youth Assembly.
When Natalie invited to her lunch table a girl who would later become one of her best friends, she had no way of knowing that until that day, that girl had felt so lonely and hopeless that she had contemplated suicide. Being welcomed into a group of friends saved her life.
All it takes is one person to make a world of difference. ♦
* Here is the answer to the riddle: The child who continued to be bullied is the one no one befriended.
In a study of more than 50 schools(link is external), researchers from Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale gave training, encouragement, and social media tools to combat bullying to specific students who had social capital. When those students promoted anti-bullying and anti-conflict messages, researchers found a 30 percent decrease in student conflict. The more influential the students, the more the school climate changed.