Teaching Children to Care

In the past ten years or so, bullying has rightly entered our national conversation about childhood development.  Negative behaviors that were previously seen in the past as “that’s just how kids are” are now examined and condemned.  In my line of work, I am often asked to address students or classes on this particular subject, helping the students understand which actions are hurtful and assisting both the victims and the tormentors.

One of the most important ways to address bullying, however, is to explore the precursors to the behavior.  Bullying prevention and teaching children empathy go hand in hand.  Recently, I had a personal experience that illustrated just how important it is to instruct children to be empathetic from a young age, and how powerful the lessons can be. 

My children, all under the age of seven, and I were in a park by our house.  It was warm winter day—a welcome break from the bitter cold we had been experiencing for the prior many weeks.  One of my kids had brought a friend, and they were playing with another one of my children on the swings in a far area of the park.  As I glanced over to check on them, I noticed that they were speaking with another child whom I recognized from the neighborhood.  Then, for no apparent reason, I saw the neighborhood child running away crying and heard my kids shouting after her “we’re sorry!”  The child ran up to her mother and presumably told her what had happened.  I looked at the mother questioningly and she responded, “She says they were making fun of her.”

I was mortified.  Not only am I the school counselor in our area Jewish school, but also I personally pride myself on raising my kids with good middos.  I try to teach empathy in our house in different ways.  Whenever one of my children gets hurt, I encourage my other ones to ask how his or her sibling is feeling, or to give him or her a hug.  When they are arguing, I try to help them work it out with one another, suggesting specific statements that could help them express themselves.

Now that my own kids were being accused, the tables were turned.  Ashamedly, my first reaction was “her child must be wrong.”  Then, even worse, my second thought was, “that mother needs to teach her child how to grow a backbone.”  These horrible gut reactions are the exact ones that I’ve previously condemned, both as a mother whose children have been teased in the past, and as a social worker.  How could I have lost my own sensitivity so quickly?

I swiftly walked over to my children and friend and asked what had happened.  One of my children looked sheepish and said, quietly, “I don’t want to tell you.”  My child seemed to know that something unkosher had occurred.  My other child objected innocently, “But I didn’t do anything!  I was just laughing at the joke!”

I gathered the troops and told them to go up to the child and apologize.

 “But we already said we’re sorry!” they protested.  I insisted that this be done face to face.  My kids went up to the child and said “We’re sorry for hurting your feelings.”  But still she cried.  I was mollified and was ready to head home when I heard presumably one of their family friends picking up the still crying child say, “Were those children mean?  I’m so sorry.” 

Again, I felt embarrassed, and even more irritated.  How dare he characterize my young children as “mean!”  Didn’t he see that they had just apologized?  What more does he want them to do?  Then I reflected on my own past experiences of when my children were teased or pushed.  A cursory “sorry” never was enough for me.   I always thought there should be something more—an explanation of some kind, a penance.  As my kids would cry, I would soothe them saying that other kids sometimes didn’t know the right way to act, or had behaved in a mean manner.  Wasn’t this man doing the same for his friend’s child?

So instead of leaving the park I again pulled my children aside and told them to approach the crying girl. 

“But we just did!”  They said, exasperated.

“And she is still upset.”  I said.  “We have to help her feel better.”

We marched over to the child and I asked the little girl how her feelings were hurt.

“They made fun of my name,” she sobbed.  “They said, ‘is your name Lisa?  Or Bisa?  Or maybe Pisa?”

I turned questioningly to my kids. 

“We didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” they said.  “We thought it was funny!”  I reiterated that fact to the child, saying that my kids could be silly sometimes and that they didn’t mean to do harm.  Only then did the child start to calm down.  I then told my child to ask if the other girl would play with them another time, as she had.  The child said that she would.  As I left the park, the mother mouthed to me “Thank you.”

Later that night I took aside my child who had said the names and shared an important lesson that I often told my students.  We never make jokes about people, not any type of joke, even if we think the other person will think it’s funny.  My child looked at me with wide eyes and said,

“But you never told me that.” 

I smiled and responded, “I know.  This is how we learn.  Now you are aware of it for the future.”

Teaching children empathy is just that, a learning experience.  We are born egocentric beings and have to be trained to look out for others.  Even grown-ups like me need a refresher course once in a while, as I discovered in the park.  I hope that my children, and the children I instruct in school, will begin to internalize these lessons, and that in the future they will be more sensitive in their dealings with their peers.