Bullying… and the Power of Empathy
By Lana Turnbull
Whether we grew up in the forties, sixties, eighties, early 2000s, or anytime before or between, there is one unfortunate truth that applies to any decade…the presence of bullying. We might have been the bully, the one who was bullied or an uninvolved bystander, but it’s safe to say none of us navigated the mine-filled course from childhood to adulthood without some exposure to the phenomenon of bullying. In fact, one nationwide survey estimates that 30 percent of 6th through 10th graders are involved in bullying (bully, target or both), and the electronic revolution has made it even more insidious, allowing it to follow kids home from school and expanding its sphere of influence from a few kids on the playground to millions of potential witnesses or willing viewers online. It’s a serious problem and one that can’t be adequately addressed in just a few paragraphs. In fact, Well-Being will delve into the subject in much more depth in the September/October issue, but for now, we can talk about a quality that is universally missing in the typical bully – empathy.
Unlike some innate characteristics, such as extreme athleticism, musical genius, a pension for math or science, or the ability to create a work of art, empathy doesn’t necessarily come naturally, but it can be taught. It comes easier for some than others, and we can only assume that environment plays a big role in whether a child is empathetic toward others or not. So where does it come into play in the context of bullying? By simple definition…”bullying is when someone repeatedly and on purpose says or does mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending himself or herself.” The perpetrator of the behavior we call bullying, carries it out without understanding or caring about the feelings of their victim. In other words, they lack empathy.
This is where we as parents can find an opening to start early teaching our children to put themselves in the place of others and to imagine how they would feel in the same situation. It also means watching what we say, and what we do…after all, not all bullies are kids. Our children are more likely to follow our example, than to follow our words. It also means giving our kids the opportunity to do something for someone who is less fortunate, who needs help, or who has been through a terrible experience. By talking about the activity and giving our children the chance to express how they would feel, we are helping them develop a sense of empathy. Kids have an amazing capacity to do good when they can put themselves in the place of others.
Bullying isn’t a problem we can solve overnight, in a year or even a generation, but it can be tackled one child at a time. Empathy can change the dynamic of bullying by helping kids put themselves in the place of the victim and imagine how they would feel. It can help lead the bystander to stand up for someone who is being bullied and maybe even help them realize that the bully might have problems that cause him or her to do the things they do. Empathy can be contagious. When it takes hold it can influence other kids to feel safe enough to join in and support the person who is being bullied. And then something amazing can happen. The balance of power shifts and the bully is no longer the one in control.
There are no guarantees, but instilling empathy can go a long way toward helping kids grow up with a sense of what it means to not just look out for ourselves, but to realize that we have a responsibility to others. When we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, it’s much easier to do what we hope someone else would do for us, no matter how old we are.
Special thanks to Steve Pickering, Programmatic Coordinator, Mississippi Community Education Center.