I was bullied for three years when I was a kid. Second, third and fourth grades were a constant refrain, of "What's that smell? Oh, it's Marilynn," "It's an earthquake! No, just Marilynn," or my personal favorite, "You're dead outside." I guess the truth is that I felt dead inside already. I'd like to say that I stood up to the three bullies who tormented me, but I didn't. The bullying only stopped when I changed schools.
On the first day at my new school, my dad said, "Remember Marilynn, no one knows you here. It's a clean slate. You can leave all the bad stuff behind you because after all, it is yesterday's trash." My dad changed my life that day. I will always be so grateful. Bullying is not part of growing up. It is damaging, dangerous and completely preventable.
To prevent and eliminate bullying, I believe we must begin in preschool. Kids learn so much in their first 10 years of life; they learn to read, write, make friends and ride a bike. They discover who they might become, making this the best time to teach children about accepting themselves and others too. It is an opportune moment to instill and practice empathy.
A person with empathy has the skills to innovate and create lasting and fair solutions to conflicts, to maintain meaningful relationships and to see the value of diversity. An empathetic person doesn't just tolerate differences; he or she celebrates them.
So, how do we do give our kids the tools they need to be comfortable with who they are and be accepting of others? I believe there are five keys to empathy and young children are eager to learn them, if we give them a chance.
1. Feeling secure. It's almost impossible to learn and welcome new ideas and people if a child feels uncomfortable in his or her own skin. A child who believes he is unsafe, unimportant or unwelcome is a child at risk of being bullied, or in some cases, even becoming a bully. Help your child feel secure by modeling unconditional love for him in your words and your actions.
I remember my granny's reaction years ago when I excitedly handed her a report card. She didn't open it. She held me in her arms and whispered, "I don't need any grade to tell me I've got a lovely granddaughter. I'm sure your report card is wonderful, but what I really love is you. You are already enough for me without any grades at all." That was the moment I could take a chance and be loved, even if I failed.
2. Unconditional love is not unconditional indulgence. Love is not just about special treats and a world without expectations or consequences. Unconditional love means loving your child even through the uncomfortable moments of when you have to discipline him or her in order to help your child develop an inner moral compass. Fair discipline tells your child you know they are capable of better.
3. Clear expectations. No child is born knowing what is appropriate behavior for every situation, but they trust us to guide them and help them benefit from our experience. Let your child know what they can expect in a given situation and let them rely on a consistent routine. In addition, let them know what you expect from them in terms of behavior and activities. Everyone feels more secure when they don't feel surprised by an unpredictable outcome or requirement.
4. Consistency and fairness. This is a tricky one, because it is not just about consistency within one family; this is about consistency across a community. What you teach at home must be aligned with what your kids learn at school about empathy, kindness, acceptance and respect of self and others. Our school offers parent workshops on teaching mindfulness at home and helping kids relax keeps the whole family moving forward.
5. Keep talking. Make empathy matter by keeping the dialogue going. No one denies the importance of good math skills, so math is taught at every school and reinforced at home. We need to do the same thing for socio-emotional skills, especially empathy. Make it a real part of the curriculum and keep it a part of classroom dialogue and dinner table discussions.
Little ones are natural builders and whether you give them blocks or lessons in empathy, you will be delighted with what they build. It's not too late.
Marilynn Halas, a life coach who lives in Easton, CT, is the founder of 4 Sunflowers Media (www.4sunflowersmedia.com).