04/17/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 06/17/2013 05:12 EDT

"What's Wrong With Kids Today?" Is the Wrong Question

When we read about horrific acts of bullying, it is not enough to utter the mantra "What is wrong with kids today" and flip to the next page of the newspaper. We are not powerless to prevent these tragedies -- the solution starts with educating our children in a culture of compassion.

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A Halifax girl is allegedly raped by four of her classmates, and her peers use social media to spread a photo of the incident throughout her high school. Haunted by the pain and humiliation, she ends her life.

Last September, a British Columbia teen posts a heart-rending video detailing the constant cyber-bullying she had endured for more than a year. One month later she commits suicide.

In Ottawa, three teenage girls stand trial for human trafficking and running a prostitution ring. South of the border, in Steubenville, Ohio, two high school football players are headed to prison for rape, and two girls face charges for threatening the victim. In Fort Colville, Washington, a pair of boys just 10 and 11 years old are charged with plotting to rape and murder seven classmates.

Cue the cliché question: "What is wrong with kids today?" Perhaps the problem is what we are teaching them or, more accurately, what we are not teaching: compassion.

Templeton Secondary is a high school in Vancouver's downtown east side -- sometimes referred to as "Canada's poorest postal code." Many of Templeton's students are at risk of falling, or have already fallen, into criminal youth gangs. However, Vice-Principal Rick Mesich says Templeton is successfully steering students away from gangs and criminal activities by weaving compassion and social responsibility right into the fabric of academic courses.

In teacher Margo Murphy's culinary arts class, students must spend three days preparing and serving gourmet lunches and dinners for the local homeless population. The students learn how to cater for large groups, while simultaneously learning how they can have a positive impact on the lives of others. In Gerry Kuniss's social studies class, students are graded on a "Pay it Forward Project," such as assembling and distributing food baskets to families in need, that must have a positive impact on others.

At drama teacher Jim Crescenzo's Boys Club, at-risk students meet weekly to talk about how to build character traits like integrity and compassion. Crescenzo brings in guest speakers, including successful businessmen and former gang members.

A young man named Dzinh (whose last name was withheld by Templeton) was an active gang member when Crescenzo convinced him to join the club in 2007. Dzinh agreed, thinking membership in the club would divert suspicion while he got in to trouble with his gang outside of school. But Crescenzo had other ideas. He helped Dinzh become a mentor for younger students and, when he fell into a dangerous conflict with a rival gang member, Crescenzo had one of his guest speakers -- a prominent Vancouver businessman -- take the boy under his wing. When he graduated in 2010, Dzinh had quit his gang and is now on a scholarship studying business at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

In 2006, in anticipation of a visit from the Dalai Lama, teachers across the Vancouver School Board (VSB) developed lesson plans for exploring compassion. Today the VSB has set a Board-wide five-year plan for social responsibility. Compassion is being integrated into the elementary and secondary curriculum -- English, drama, even science.

Other organizations like Roots of Empathy, The Kindness Foundation, and The Hawn Foundation are also developing publicly available resources and lesson plans to teach compassion in a school setting.

"Mindfulness is something that should be applied across the whole spectrum of learning. It is arguably more important than the mere accumulation of information," says Victor Chan, founder of the Dalai Lama Centre, and co-author with the Dalai Lama of a new book The Wisdom of Compassion (Riverhead).

The Vancouver-based Dalai Lama Centeris working with the VSB to support the development of curriculum resources.In May, the Centre will host a conference in Vancouver entitled "Heart-Mind 2013: Helping Children Thrive" -- bringing together experts and presenting science-based evidence that teaching compassion can help children thrive emotionally, physically and academically.

Every Vancouver teacher and principal we spoke to told us the same thing: the culture they see in their schools today is vastly more positive than what they remember from their own days as students.

Numerous scientific studies over the past few decades have found a direct correlation -- the greater a person's capacity for compassion and empathy the less likely they are to commit acts of aggression or anti-social behaviour.

At Templeton, exposure to a culture of compassion in school led a young man to reject a life of gang violence. Just like the ability to factor an equation or write a good essay, compassion can be taught in the classroom through example and practice.

When we read about horrific acts of bullying, it is not enough to utter the mantra "What is wrong with kids today" and flip to the next page of the newspaper. We are not powerless to prevent these tragedies -- the solution starts with educating our children in a culture of compassion.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit

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