Did you know that this week is National Bullying Awareness Prevention week? Even if your child hasn't reported any bullying problems at school, I think this week is still a great time to talk with your children about friendship, kindness, and the importance of reporting bullying of any kind to teachers, staff and parents. So often we aren't motivated into action until something affects us personally; I'm guilty of this as a parent myself. But I think our children learn the most from the examples we set at home, and outside in the community. Sometimes we have to do more than just assume that our kids will learn empathy and kindness--sometimes we have to be proactive, and teach this, just the way we would teach safety and smart choices. Understanding this was one of those a-ha! moments for me as a parent--right along with the eye-opener early on that you actually have to teach your babies to sleep (and some never end up learning!).
Here are some of the ways we have worked at teaching our kids to practice empathy with others--bear in mind that for L., empathy does not always come easily. He will, for instance, keep on talking right through someone getting hurt. Although he is a very sensitive child--hyper-sensitive, really, empathy can be pretty hit or miss, and teaching this skill to him is still very much a work-in-progress.
1. Instead of going with your gut and scolding inconsiderate behavior, ask your child how he/she would feel if they were treated that way. Kids find it easier to identify with their own feelings, especially at a young age, then they do with the feelings of others. If putting herself in another child's shoes is difficult for your child, as it is for L., explain the other child's feelings in clear terms: "B. is pretty sad right now because you called her a name that makes her feel bad inside".
2. Bring on the animals--real ones you can pet and cuddle, and the colorful talking ones that inhabit the pages of so many children's books. If a child can get the chance to view the world through an animal's eyes, they will be working on their empathy skills early on, and learn to apply these later in life in their interactions with the people around them. I'm sure there's a statistic out there that shows that growing up with pets in the home is an excellent way to help kids learn kindness and responsibility towards others. And if you can't bring a pet into your family, give them a chance to read about furry friends, to visit them in the homes of others, and, for older kids, to volunteer at shelters and animal rescue organizations.
3. Teach kids the right way to react to bullying--when it happens to them. Sometimes role-playing responses is the only way to go--even with kids who don't otherwise struggle with the social side of life. Teach your children to "look big" by standing tall and saying loudly to the bully, "go away!" We still can't get L. to report most of the bullying he experiences at school, but he has become better at asserting himself on the playground.
4. Teach kids the right way to react to bullying, when it happens to others. Tell them that it is never okay to watch another child get hurt at school, or at a playgroup, or an after-school program. This link has great tips and resources for kids, whether they are being bullied themselves, or have witnessed bullying at school.
5. Don't assume that your kids understand how to react to another child's distress. Sometimes we grown-ups are so attuned to certain physical cues (tears, yelling, grimaces of pain and/or fear) that we forget that some children may have difficulty knowing how to react to these same cues. Model good, sympathetic behavior--a gentle touch on the shoulder, a hug, or teach them to go and find a grown-up if they feel confused.
6. Talk with your children often about the social side of school. While we tend, as parents, to focus on the academic side of things, especially when too much time is spent in homework battles and completing projects, sometimes the most critical--and difficult--part of school for a child is that 25 minute recess time on the playground. Keep an ear out for any stories that indicate bullying is going on, even if they don't directly involve your own child. Sometimes children are bothered by what they see, and they look to you to explain it, or guide them into the appropriate response; sometimes kids find themselves inadvertently caught up in bullying themselves, and they feel badly about it. If you blow off their concern, they might get the message that bullying is okay.
I'm scared of bullying, I really am. I'm scared to death already about middle school, and about how on earth L. will navigate that frightening terrain. When I hear stories of bullying happening to L., and to kids like L., I want to stretch out my arms wide in a big Mama bear hug and draw him in close; I want to turn myself into a wide, and beautifully impenetrable wall, and place myself between my kids, and those bullies out there, the ones that have been an inevitable presence on school playgrounds since the beginning of time. But I know I can't be with my kids every second of every school day, so I do what I can at home, and I trust with all my might that everyone else out there will be doing what they can, too; because in the end, keeping our children safe at school should be a job for all of us, and a promise to them we all work hard to keep.