Sticks and Stones: Insensitivity Training

06/05/2015 05:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

One of the most important phrases we can teach our children is that the only behavior we can control is our own.

When I was a child I got picked on a lot. I was very short, an almost-good-enough athlete, and very sensitive. My feelings were assaulted regularly, and I did not have the physical resources to "fight back." So I had to learn to deal with mean people fairly early in my life.

Luckily, my parents were aware of my plight. Although my father was six foot four, I always felt he couldn't relate because, from my point of view he had nothing to worry about. Unlike today, in my youth karate schools were hard to find (and my mother wasn't willing to drive me five miles to the closest one), so I had to resort to arming myself emotionally rather than physically.

My first line of defense, as it was for many kids in elementary school, was "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me." I took that very seriously. Armed with that admonition, I felt as though I was protected from any slur thrown my may because, after all, a word couldn't bruise me or penetrate my flesh. Publicly, I didn't let myself get upset. Privately, I took comfort in the fact that I hadn't been physically harmed.

Of course, my feelings were sometimes hurt (depending on who had thrown the barb), but for the most part I was raised to believe that "meanness" was really the other person's curse and would remain so for the rest of their lives. I learned (or was taught by my parents) to believe that I was a "good person" and to see other people's meanness as an expression of their unhappiness, or jealousy, or whatever might have been the case at a particular time.

I was never taught to feel as though I was a victim of that meanness. On the contrary, I was taught to elevate myself above it.

Today I find a lot of parents fighting their children's battles. In fact, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has written that, "Emotional discomfort is [now] regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated." Instead of arming their kids to deal with unfairness, some parents march into their children's lives and try to create an unreal world where everything is equal and everyone gets first place. That works well when our children need advocates (for institutional problems or physical attacks) but some problems aren't worthy of parental intervention, especially on the playground.

My wife, JoAnn, and I always did our best to help our children understand that there are times when life sucks, people are unkind, and we feel badly. We used those opportunities to redirect them toward their positives (and rebuild their confidence) and distract them enough to replace those hurt feelings with something else. True to our nature and genders, JoAnn would spend time helping our child unravel the knot of their feelings while I listened and occasionally chimed in with a properly timed "It'll be OK," "Toughen up!" or "A quitter never wins" kind of comment.

Together we'd send them back into the world. She would have bandaged the wounds and I would have given them emotional ammunition for the battles ahead. But neither of us would go out and fight their battles for them.

One thing we could and did control was teaching our children to stand up for each other. We taught them that our family was a unit and that they had a responsibility to be kind to each other and, in public, supportive. We accomplished this with weekly (or more) family dinners in which we stressed treating each other with respect, and that what happened "in the family" stayed in the family.

This led to wonderful conversations about hurt feelings (within the family and without) and led to an understanding that life could be fair -- because it was fair at the dinner table (where people listened and cared).

Bullying seems to be a part of human nature, and no matter how many laws are passed, or systems are put in place, it's going to be sticking around. The best thing we can do about it, is to teach our children kindness and compassion -- and to make our homes a safe haven for open discussion.

Today our children are closer to each other than they are to us. I've written before about 100 percent Maximum Love (which is how we quantify our feelings for each other), and so I'm comforted by the fact that we all deeply love each other. But as our kids get older, there's no question that they have more in common with each other than with us, their parents. That's something I'm getting used to.

Learning to deal with hurt feelings is a lesson that travels through our lives. The office replaces the playground. The mean kid becomes the self-aggrandizing unhelpful boss. Teaching our children to overcome childhood adversity not only gives them the tools they'll need to solve these problems in adulthood, but also lets them identify the "bad guys and value themselves as "nice" people.

So, although we can no longer "control" our children's behavior, my hope is that we can teach them how to protect and value themselves so that they will be kind to others.