Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of Free The Children and Me to We, a social enterprise. They are authors of "The World Needs Your Kid: Raising Children Who Care And Contribute," with journalist Shelley Page.
So much of the parenting talk these days is about how to help your child deal with bullies, or help him or her from becoming a bully. That's understandable, since the scope of bullying has widened -- no longer restricted to the schoolyard, bullying can happen outside school, online, and even later in life.
As as result, bullying's effects are more damaging than ever: we need look no farther than recently reported teen suicides, some of which have been linked to the effects of bullying.
The Ontario Ministry Of Education defines bullying as "a form of repeated, persistent and aggressive behaviour directed at an individual or individuals that is intended to cause (or should be known to cause) fear and distress and/or harm to another person's body, feelings, self-esteem or reputation. Bullying occurs in a context where there is a real or perceived power imbalance."
Scary stuff. But there are ways parents can blindside bullies long before they reach the schoolyard. We think bullies are made, not born. And since parents play a primary socializing role, their words can, knowingly or otherwise, help shape an attitude of superiority. Kids hear it when their parents gossip about or criticize other adults, or even other children. In the car, they may hear parents' abusive language aimed at other motorists.
Building an anti-bully, on the other hand, means fostering empathy and compassion among young children, to also increase the likelihood they stand up to bullies or stand up for those who are being bullied.
Empathetic kids are able to take the perspective of someone else, even a stranger. Children who lack empathy can turn into hardened, apathetic adults. A 1999 study by Daniel Nagin and Richard Tremblay published for the Society for Research in Child Development found that "aggression in the school environment can inhibit learning and create interpersonal problems for children. Moreover, a high level of childhood aggression is problematic in the long term, as it is a significant predictor of adult criminal behavior and other anti-social behaviors." We see them as kids and adults all around us. They don't care about others, only themselves. When they encounter someone in need, they look away.
So what can parents do? We called on experts such as Dan Kindlon, Mary Gordon and Barbara Coloroso while researching our book The World Needs Your Kid: Raising Kids Who Care And Contribute. Here's their advice for raising an empathetic, anti-bullying kid.
Full text continues below slideshow. Check out experts' advice on how to raise a caring kid
1. If they're happy and they know it: From an early age, we teach children to identify and organize objects: A is for apple, B is for ball and so it goes. And we should also teach them to identify their emotions: "You must be happy the sun is shining, we can go to the playground." Or, conversely, "Maybe you are disappointed it's raining and we can't visit the park." In this way, the dialogue begins, as does the ability to take another's perspective. Kids can only talk about their feelings if we give them the vocabulary; so show them how and give them permission to express them.
2. Parents sometimes don't give their sons the tools they need to properly express their feelings. Child psychologist Dan Kindlon, who co-authored Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, told us parents -- and society -- often protect boys from having to do the emotional work that will help them become whole people. He shared the story of a mother and daughter coming across a little boy crying in the park. When the daughter asks why the boy is crying, the mom helps her speculate. "Maybe he's lost." "Maybe he hurt himself." A mother with a son, however, may tell her son not to worry about the crying child.
An encounter with a curt waiter at a restaurant might provide more food for thought: "Why do you suppose he’s so angry?", parents could ask. Boys don't need special training, Kindlon says, they need opportunities to show off their natural capacity for caring for pets, siblings, grandparents, elderly neighbors and others in the neighbourhood.
3. Parents can also show their children how to express their feelings by doing it themselves. Start by sharing the highs and lows in your day. If you are facing a moral dilemma, talk about it with your kids. They don’t need to know every detail to try to get the gist. If you make a mistake, apologize. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it shows kids how it’s done. As Mary Gordon, the famed founder of Roots of Empathy, an award-winning organization that offers empathy-based programming for children in their classrooms, told us: attentive, loving and empathetic parents are the best role models for children. Gordon should know. Independent studies have shown her program’s graduates are more socially sensitive, less aggressive and more likely to challenge injustice than other youngsters.
4. How would you feel if...? It’s a question that's perfect for every occasion. Ask kids to put themselves in someone else's shoes — happy or sad. From the playground to the grocery store to the living-room sofa, our day-to-days are filled with moments that could be considered from someone else's perspective. At the park, for example, a power struggle at the swing-set could evolve into a lesson in sharing and perspective taking: "How would you feel if you weren’t allowed a turn?" A bedtime story or children's movie that ends happily-ever-after might merit a follow-up: "What do you think you would have done in that situation?" It's a lesson some rather accomplished people have learned. In his video introduction at the Democratic Convention in August 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of the only time he saw his mother angry. It was upon witnessing an act of bullying on someone who appeared to be different. "She'd said to me, 'Imagine standing in that person’s shoes. How would that make you feel?' That simple idea, I'm not sure I always understood it as a kid, but it stayed with me."