A 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that each day, as many as 160,000 children stay home from school because they are afraid of being bullied. Empathy is an antidote for bullying. Bullying is now so widespread in schools that the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) calls it a public health problem.” In a recent NICHD study, 29 percent of students – more than one in four – had been involved in bullying, either doling it out or sucking up. And most of the time (as much as 85 percent), when bullying occurs, other students are standing around watching.
One of the most powerful ways to teach children empathy is to be empathetic yourself. You don’t have to be a parent to be concerned about statistics like the ones above. These children are going to grow into adults who want jobs. Does the opportunity of working with a former schoolyard bully sound appealing? Do you want to hire one? What about the one who watched the taunting happen? Do you want to work with someone who is unlikely to be a team player in your office? Clearly empathy is not a challenge to teach just in the home. It needs to be modeled by everyone every day.
As a person walking down the street, you can hold doors open for others. The mom who is struggling with the stroller could really use your assistance when opening a door to a building. How busy are you? Too busy to hold the door for her? What about the older gentleman who has dropped his glove? Are you going to bend down, pick it up and hand it to him? How far are you willing to go in showing empathy to the people, the strangers, around you?
While having patience with small children can be difficult, it’s often just as difficult to be kind to the adult who is not being considerate. It’s important in all instances to stay as calm as you can when adults are rude or children misbehave. “If your child does something you don’t like, it’s not helpful to yell at them or hit them. That teaches them that yelling and hitting are acceptable ways to handle feelings. Then they might do those things to other children,” says Laura Padilla Walker, assistant professor in the School of Family Life.
“As a school, we’ve done a lot of work with human rights,” said Michael McDermott, a middle school principal. “but you can’t have kids saving Darfur and isolating a peer in the lunchroom. It all has to go together.”
Roots of Empathy is a program designed to instill empathy by reducing bullying. It’s one example of anti-bullying behavior that develops in children. The program allows children to experience a mother and child who come into a classroom to monitor and experience the milestones of a developing baby.
Roots of Empathy (ROE) was brought to my home of Seattle as a classroom program that reduces levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social and emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program brings in a neighborhood infant and parent who visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. A trained ROE Instructor coaches students to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. In this experiential learning the baby is the “teacher” and a lever which the instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. The “emotional literacy” taught in the program lays the foundation for more safe and caring classrooms, where children are the “changers.” They are more competent in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy) and are therefore less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt each other through bullying and other cruelties.
In the ROE program children learn how to challenge cruelty and injustice. Messages of social inclusion and activities that are consensus building contribute to a culture of caring that change the tone of the classroom.
There are so many ways to properly model empathy. When considering how you as an adult can put yourself in another’s shoes, you are being a positive example to all age groups around you. It’s exciting when considering the positive impact you can have by showing a little extra kindness to a complete stranger. Just think what it will look like, and the returns you will get, when you show empathy toward your three year old nephew, aging grandfather and sour Aunt Molly. Everyone deserves consideration. Hopefully you will be the one to show it.