The preschool teacher sent a nice note home: My delicious (OK, that’s my word) 2-year-old grandson L. had noticed that his classmate’s nose was running so he got a tissue and started to wipe the kid’s nose before the teacher swooped in with a lesson on hygiene.
L. should have given the lesson on empathy.
You read so much about bullying these days, but the two words I’ve never seen in those articles are “empathy” and “kindness.” And those are really the words that people need to understand, internalize, and teach to prevent and combat bullying.
I’ve seen bullying in the mom who screams when her child accidentally spills a glass of milk. And the dad who yells from the sidelines at Little League when the kid misses the ball. When the teacher smirks at a wrong answer. When a parent laughs derisively at an outfit the child has chosen herself to wear to school. Anything that diminishes, rather than enhances, a child’s sense of self is, to my mind, bullying. And the child learns the lesson—and goes and applies it to someone else, in other situations.
That is not to say that we as parents should not correct mistakes. Of course we should, that’s part of our job. But how we correct a mistake can be constructive or destructive. And how we act and talk to, and about, other people models behavior for our children.
One of my proudest experiences as a mother occurred over 20 years ago when my youngest son, A., was in day camp at the age of 4. The first few days he came home talking about a particular child, C., who seemed to be a little different from the other kids and who the other kids avoided. The day he told me that C. had an accident in the pool and soiled his bathing suit, I realized what was happening.
I sat A. down and told him that it sounded to me like C. could not “think” or “understand” the way A. could and probably could not follow directions well enough to play the games or do the arts and crafts projects. I told him that C. was probably not able to control going to the bathroom the way most 4-year-olds could. But, despite that, C. could certainly feel the way A. and the others could. That he could be happy, sad, and angry. We talked about how C. must feel when he couldn’t do what the other kids did, when they didn’t want to play with him, when they made fun of him for pooping in the pool. We talked about it almost every afternoon when A. came home with a new story about C. We talked about how A. would feel if it were him the kids didn’t like and what A. could do to help C.
On camp Visiting Day, a woman came over to me and identified herself as C.’s mother. She thanked me and told me that A. had been the only child in the group who had been nice to C., who C. called his friend.
My heart broke. My heart filled with pride.
Now, granted the camp should have tipped off the parents. They handled the situation poorly and missed a teachable moment for the children and the parents. But it was still my job–it is our job as parents–to teach empathy, in what we say and how we act.
I remember once hearing a terrible story on the news as I was preparing dinner. One of my children came into the kitchen and found me crying. Alarmed, he asked me what had happened. I told him that I was upset about something I had just heard on TV. He asked me if I knew the person in the news story. No, I said, but it doesn’t matter. I am crying for that mother, for that child, for the fact that such things happen in the world. Years later, he told me that experience helped him realize what it was to really feel for another.
Everything we do influences our children and bringing up a mentsch involves teaching empathy and kindness. Each time we diminish another in word or action, we are teaching how to bully. Every time we are kind and imagine ourselves in someone else’s position, we practice empathy.
One reason I dislike sports for young kids is that people get so riled up over what is, essentially, a big nothing. Those poor kids, you think they feel good when they miss a fly ball? Fumble a football? Miss a basket? It sure doesn’t help their self-esteem, especially when the dads are yelling at them from the sidelines.
And moms, your kid knocked over the milk. You’ve already had a bad day. But maybe you can take a breath and have her help wipe it up. Her skirt and blouse don’t match? Make a gentle suggestion or just let her wear what she wants. The important thing is not to tear them down, for their own self-respect and so they learn how to treat others.
It’s a shame that schools have to launch big, expensive anti-bullying campaigns.
Parents should launch their own campaign against bullying the moment a child has a sense of self and a sense of other. When we practice and teach empathy and kindness, our children will learn from us how to put themselves in another’s place and be compassionate.
And the world will be a better place.