There was a documentary we sat down to watch with the 10 and 12 year old last week about a football team from America in the 60’s. It was the story of Ole Miss, the Mississippi University where riots ensued after JFK overruled the University Chancellor to allow James Meredith entry into the University as the first African American. The hate and discrimination was perplexing to say the least to our 2 boys. “Are they seriously protesting because he is black? It’s just skin colour?” We then proceeded to elaborate on the civil rights movement and the origins of the racism. What pleased me most I guess was the absolute disbelief that our kids showed. It is just not part of their world that people are discriminated against for skin colour or ethnicity. I know this is not necessarily the case for all kids but in this instance , we have certainly come a long way. They showed genuine empathy for Meredith and for all the African American children that were denied basic human rights. “But aren’t they exactly the same as the other kids?”.
I started thinking about this empathy that my kids felt and wondered how much it extends to other areas of life and discrimination. Empathy is such an important asset, particularly when dealing with bullies both online and in the real world. We know how important the bystander is in helping to curb bullying, and we know the bystander can only be effective if they have an ability to feel empathy.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is more than sympathy or feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is the ability to really put yourself in someone else’ shoes. It is taking on another’s perspective with the self awareness to distinguish ones own feelings from the feelings of others. Empathic behaviour means being aware of the environment and circumstance of others in order to regulate ones own emotional response.
For some kids, empathy comes naturally. Sometimes it is a direct result of experience. For others, it needs to be consciously taught, nurtured and encouraged.
How can parents encourage empathy?
Help them to express their feelings
Teaching our kids to express their feelings vocally is proven to have many benefits in helping them recognise the feelings of others. When a small child is seen to share with a friend or brother, remind them that they are being kind or generous or friendly. Likewise getting kids to recognise that someone has made them feel sad or angry helps them to express and recognise emotions.
Helping kids recognise non verbal cues is also a good way to teach empathy. As this is an area of difficulty to kids on the Autism spectrum, some of the exercises to help this can also be used to help all kids become aware of others feelings. Getting our kids to tell us why someone looks happy or sad or angry by way of physical movements and facial expressions as evidence or clues is good way to do this.
Develop morality and inner self control
This should be based on a real sense of right and wrong, not merely by a network of punishments. Kids need to really understand why it is wrong to single out others because of a difference or disability, not just because they will get in trouble. If kids are given rational explanations and moral consequences for nasty behaviour they are more likely to recognise these situations in the future as something to stand up for. Using statements such as “It hurts your brother when you say those things as it makes him feel like he isn’t good enough” rather than “If you tease your brother again you are going to your room” will ensure they are looking at the moral reasons for the punishment rather than simply the inconvenience of going to their room.
Whilst this psychotherapeutic technique occurs in many psychologist rooms, mindfulness can be exercised by everyone, including the very young. Put simply, mindfulness is about living in the present, not stressing about the future or worrying about the past. It is about learning to think with curiosity and kindness rather than always with critical or negative judgement. So basically encouraging our kids to sometimes just sit back and ‘smell the roses’. Keeping a gratitude diary or getting kids to think of 3 great things that happened to them that day can be a good way of encouraging them to enjoy the moments.
Set an example and be a good role model
We all know the very best way to get our kids to learn any positive behaviours is by role modelling these behaviours ourselves. Explain why you are making a casserole for a sick friend. Get kids to help pack up bags for a charity. Show concern for another player on the opposition football team when they get hurt. (I may have some transparent limits to this one). Everyday we can find opportunities to model empathic feelings and behaviours and we can always extend these to share with our kids. Watching the documentary about James Meredith and the subsequent riots was a great way for us to teach our kids more about the devastating consequences of discriminating. When we hear about kids being bullied online we need to bring this up and question the feelings of the victim.
With 25% of online teenagers experiencing some sort of bullying and nearly all users having witnessed some form of negative behaviour, the role of the bystander is our greatest asset in helping to eradicate the bully. Getting our kids to stand up for the feelings of others who are being bullied can only be achieved if they have a strong sense of awareness of self and empathy for others.
Related posts: The Role of the Bystanders