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How Can We Help Children Become 'Upstanders' to Bullying?

04/30/2013 05:05 pm 17:05:04 | Updated Jun 30, 2013
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Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy is a remarkably thoughtful and balanced study of the problem of bullying. Bazelon presents sensitive, insightful portraits of both bullies and victims, and the complex circumstances of their lives.

In the course of telling the stories of these teenagers, Bazelon informs us about effective ways to reduce bullying and its devastating impact. There is some good news in this research and reason to hope that Bazelon is right in her belief that we can change how students think and feel about bullying, just as we have changed the norms for wearing seat belts and drunk driving.

The common denominator of all types of bullying is a lack, or erosion, of empathy. Nurturing empathy, a potential that is present in almost all children, is therefore at the heart of interventions to prevent bullying.

In the end, Bazelon raises a larger question: What can we do, as parents, to nurture qualities of empathy and kindness in our children? How can we reduce the risk that our children will get caught up in hurtful teenage drama? How can we help them become "upstanders," not bystanders, to meanness and cruelty?

In a recent lecture, Bazelon wisely counseled that we should acknowledge our children's acts of kindness as warmly and enthusiastically as we do their academic or athletic achievements. This is certainly a good place to start.

I would like to briefly add some additional advice -- lessons about empathy gleaned from my experience as a child therapist and from developmental research. To some parents, these lessons may seem self-evident, but they are easily lost in the stress and pace of modern family life.

Here is what I believe is most essential: Empathy begets empathy. As parents, we need to set aside time to listen patiently and empathically to our children and to repair moments of anger and misunderstanding. When we listen with empathy, when children know that their concerns and their grievances will be heard, we open a pathway toward emotional maturity. In these moments, children become less absorbed in defiant thoughts and argument, more open to compromise, and more caring toward others.

Listening with empathy, however, is not always easy and should not be confused with permissiveness or indulgence. Children need to know that their feelings are important, but so are the needs and feelings of others. In a recent series of studies, psychologist Ross Thompson and his colleagues found that young children's moral understanding and pro-social behavior were strengthened when mothers used an "elaborative," emotion-rich language in conversation with their children, and when they made frequent references to other people's feelings.

We should also teach our children, from an early age, the importance of helping others. (Older children, for example, can be encouraged to tutor or read to younger students.) Children learn important lessons from helping others. They learn that they have something to offer, and they experience the gratitude and appreciation of others.

In his book, Authentic Happiness, psychologist Martin Seligman describes an informal experiment he conducted with his college students. For these students, performing small acts of kindness and philanthropy resulted in far more personal gratification than activities that were simply pleasurable. Seligman reports that this simple experiment was a life-changing experience for many of his students.

We also need to help children learn how to solve problems through dialogue and compromise. Children need our active guidance, as often as we can provide it, in how to acknowledge another person's concerns and find common ground. Without our help, conflict between children too often leads to defensiveness and retaliation, rather than mutual understanding and creative solutions. (In families, when there is conflict, letting siblings try to "work it out on their own" is rarely a good idea.)

Finally, we need to be role models and to practice empathy and forgiveness in all our relationships. Developmental research, over several decades, has consistently shown that children are more likely to be caring toward others when they observe the caring behavior of admired adults. For young boys, a warm relationship with a father who is perceived as generous and compassionate may be especially important.

We cannot predict all of the challenges and moral dilemmas our children will encounter in the course of their lives. We can only prepare them with a foundation, based on our empathic understanding of their feelings and concerns. On this foundation, empathy and concern for others are then more likely to become second nature -- the right and normal thing to do.