by Dianna Flett

One of the things that propelled me to start Girl Smarts were the stories of girls being bullied in school. I was angry. Angry that bullying was occurring, angry that the children doing the bullying weren’t being held accountable and angry that our children were being bullied and didn’t have the skills to stand up for themselves. When we worked to create workshops to support children who are being bullied, the first thing we focused on was the concept of empathy.

I am sad to say, I don’t believe we can stop bullying. It is born of so many human flaws, generational reinforcements of negative behaviors and a lack of self-awareness. I do not believe we will ever stop the behaviors from developing in some children. I do believe, however, we can shift our children’s mindsets so they have an understanding of how broken their aggressors are and how the aggressors’ behaviors have nothing to do with them as the targets. In the next few posts I plan to talk about what we can do to help our children stand up for themselves and what we can do to ensure we don’t raise kids who are jerks.

Empathy is the ability to experience and share someone else’s feelings. It is a deep sense of understanding and sharing someone else’s emotional reality. When my boys were young I found myself as concerned about their development of an emotional quotient as the development of their intellectual quotient. Our personalities are formed between the ages of 0 to 6. It comes from a variety of inputs, according to experts like Freud, Skinner and Bandura, and the management of those inputs is something my husband and I considered of critical importance with our children. One of my favorite mantras in parenting was:

“What you say to your children becomes their inner voice.”

Purposefully working on messages and actions focused on empathy has served our family well. But it wasn’t easy. It took deliberate planning, deliberate conversations and purposeful actions and dedication.

Here are some specific things you can do support the growth of empathy in your children.

1. Make a difference.

Turn days off into days on. If you have a three day weekend or extended break consider helping your children organize something to support others. Every summer my boys would organize a charitable drive in our neighborhood. We had pet shelter drives, food drives, toy drives for charity. The boys created the flyers, asked local businesses to support with free copies of the flyers, went to grocery stores to have plastic grocery bags donated and we went around together to distribute the flyers.

They even formed a team name “Brothers for Others” to brand their efforts.

The trip to the donation site was a trip filled with satisfaction, compassion and understanding of the good fortune we shared as a family and the needs of others. It also laid the groundwork for their charitable efforts as young men when I was no longer the instigator of the effort.

2. Volunteer to serve meals at local shelters.

This will take some effort by you to ensure that where you are volunteering is safe and controlled. I wouldn’t advocate a walk-in appearance at a local venue since you want to ensure that your children have an opportunity to actually work and be a part of an organized event. By reaching out ahead of time to local support groups you can find a way to have a healthy experience. In our case we served Thanksgiving breakfast at a local shelter in town. There was an associated church in support and while we weren’t a part of the church we were allowed to participate as manpower for the event.

It was particularly rewarding to support Thanksgiving morning events with our children that led to Thanksgiving prayers at our own dinner. It meant we had to do a lot of prep for our own holiday meal sometimes days before, but the payoff was doing something for others in need and actually realizing our blessings of the day.

3. It is one thing to let your children watch television or YouTube videos, it is another to watch it with them and have conversations about the emotions of the characters.

My goodness, watching children’s shows was a tedious task and consumed many moments of my parenting life! But I did it with a purpose. We’d talk about the characters and their emotions. We’d discuss how the characters’ actions influenced others both positively and negatively. With small incremental steps of connection with emotions children learn and practice empathy. It is a skill and a strength that not everyone has but one that everyone should work to impart in our children.

So how does this help with bullying? Everyone is dealing with something. Helping your children understand how important their actions toward others are can help them stay mindful of their words and behaviors toward others. Also, and I believe this to be true, it can help you emphasize that someone’s negative behaviors toward your child has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with the person DOING the bullying and that child’s need to lash out at someone else. It is one step, probably the first step of keeping your child strong when harmful dynamics are in play. Hurt people hurt people, and while that isn’t a get out of jail free card for the bully, it is a mindset shift for our children.

In the next blog I’ll list some very specific activities you can do with boys and girls to help them understand the impact of their own words on others. In subsequent blogs I will give you the language for them to respond and the actions you can do to support them if you need to raise the issue to their school.

Let me know if you have any specific questions I can answer. If I have the ability to I will.