Empathy: The ability to walk in another’s shoes, to see their point of view over your own experience, or as part of your experience.
I have been working in bullying prevention going on my seventh year. I work in the trenches with the kids, looking for bullying behavior and calling attention to it. I work with the child to find a more positive and healthier way of coping with conflict.
Bullying behavior and I emphasize behavior because we do not want to label people bullies, it implies that they cannot change. I chose to focus on action, what kind of conduct constitutes bullying? The obvious choices of pushing, shoving, but also yelling at a person, excluding them from joining a group, any type of behavior that seeks to demean or devalue another human being. When you focus on behavior, then that becomes the game changer with the kids. I have conversations with the kids about their behavior, and we discuss alternate choices for their behavior. Sometimes this is a 30-second conversation, sometimes depending on the age of the child, it can go longer.
Always as part of my conversation with kids about the choices that they make about their behavior towards another person is a conversation about empathy. The conversation goes something like this, “Why did you hit Tommy in the shoulder?” “He pushed me because he wanted his toy back.” “Do you think that it was right that he pushed you?” “No, it wasn’t right, that’s why I hit him.” “Do you think that hitting is a good way of solving problems?” “Well, he pushed me.” “Do you think that it was right that he pushed you to solve his problem.” “No, but I was mad.” “Do you like to be pushed or hit?” “No, I do not.” “Then we should not be pushing or hitting another person if we do not like it to happen to us.” You want to humanize the other person, get the child to think of the other person regarding their own experience; I do not like it when I get hit. Therefore I should not hit another person.
Being mean on purpose, that is what bullying behavior is on the surface. Helping a child to have empathy for a person who is being mean on purpose should help them to understand that the behavior is not about them. That’s why bullying behavior can be so devastating to a child; they make the mistake of taking the mean behavior as a reflection of who they are. “I must be a bad person for my friend to treat me so horribly.” As a caregiver to children, we should be guiding our child with our words to help them process correctly what is happening to them. We, adults, have a bigger perspective, we have lived many years and have gone through much and hopefully have gained lots of healthy wisdom from the experiences. Having empathy for another person’s situation should never overshadow the fact that that person uses mean behavior to cope, and this aspect needs to be part of the conversation with your child. “Why do you think that Tommy was mean to you?” “Probably because someone is mean to them at home.” “You are probably right, but what they did to you is wrong, so you must decide on how you are going to handle it. Do you want to talk with him about it, do you want to ignore it and play with someone else and stay away from Tommy? What do you think is the best way to handle this?” Giving the child choices helps them to pick the course of action that is most comfortable to them. They must know that while they can forgive the behavior because of someone’s circumstances, but they can also choose to stay away from that person because of the choices they make.
As a caregiver, it is essential to understand that the most effective way of teaching your child anything is to model the behavior, consistently. If you want a child that is kind, then you need to show the child what kind looks like. If you want a child that is empathetic, you must model empathy. If you want a child that will not use mean behavior, then you must not use mean behavior. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is hypocritical, and children can spot hypocritical behavior in an instance. This requires a level of honesty with us as adults. Self-reflection is critical to making sure that we are modeling behavior that we want our children to copy. Do not beat yourself up if you have behavior that needs to change; the first step is acknowledging it. Be honest with your child, “Mommy gets angry and yells sometimes, this is not the way you want to handle getting angry.” Let them see you trying to do better, you are modeling that not everyone is perfect, but we must take responsibility for our behavior and change what is not desirable. Effective parenting is not easy, but it is a growing experience and your children, and the world will benefit the process.