Several kids had been targeting Beth for weeks. Beth was sweet, absent-minded, easygoing and resigned to being mistreated. Some of her fellow eighth-grade students were using social media to call her fat and stupid, and they would drop dirty tissues on her head as they passed her desk. As her school counselor, I wanted to help, but Beth would never call out the bullies. She worried she would make the situation worse, and she insisted she was fine.
Beth’s classmate Jenna, however, was so disturbed by the mean behavior that she brought me a handwritten list of the perpetrators and pleaded with me to make them stop. Jenna — a confident, popular student — barely knew Beth, but she couldn’t stand the cruelty. Her discomfort was the one positive in a bad situation. The Jennas are rare; I can’t recall another recent situation when a student so vehemently refused to be a bystander. I knew that it would be difficult to change the kids’ behavior, and that quick solutions, such as detentions and phone calls home, would only give Beth a short-term reprieve.
While some kids, like Jenna, seem to be hard-wired for empathy, we need strategies to reach those who are not. No one sets out to raise an unkind child. To teach kids to be kind, it’s critical to start young, when they can most easily absorb fundamental lessons. The stakes get higher as kids age. There is no easy program to follow, but parents and educators can take these steps to stack the deck in favor of raising a child who shows decorum and kindness.
Remember that apples don’t fall far from trees. Model compassion by treating friends, acquaintances and colleagues with kindness. Expending energy on caring, reciprocal relationships teaches children to prioritize friendship and positivity over popularity. Children hovering at the periphery of “alpha” groups often struggle the most. Constant maneuvering for position in the social hierarchy can lead to insecurity, envy, anxiety, or competitiveness, all of which promote meanness. Children with sensitive adult role models and gentle friends tend to behave similarly.
Keep it real. Being inauthentic damages credibility with kids. Kindness doesn’t require liking or speaking positively about everyone all of the time. Validate kids’ feelings when they accurately point out that someone has been mean-spirited. Take the opportunity to talk about why a specific action was mean, and remind children that it’s possible to make bad choices but still be a good person. You don’t need to pretend that they have to be friends with everyone, but you can teach them to be respectful and polite and to avoid burning bridges. Friendships often cycle in and out as kids change and mature. Promote this social growth by praising kids when they are considerate or altruistic, even as they outgrow some friendships and move on to others.
Stop the contagion. Anyone who has spent time in a toxic environment knows that behaviors such as gossip, jockeying for power and negativity spread rapidly. Being in a mean climate can alter individual behavior. This stuff matters, and adults help set the tone for everyone, including kids in their charge. In order to establish positive social norms, school and community leaders need to understand and target systemic problems, which may include insecurity, anxiety or a sense of powerlessness. These trained adults can identify kindness catalysts who can model positive behavior and take on roles such as playground buddies or new student welcome ambassadors. Through field trips, retreats and collaborative projects, leaders also can create opportunities for kids to venture beyond their usual social groups. Familiarity, comfort and shared experiences make it easier for children to establish core values and develop a culture of respect and cooperation.
Teach compassion through mindfulness. Mindfulness can enhance attention span and reduce stress, but now researchers are finding that it can also foster empathy. In a study at Northeastern University, participants took an eight-week meditation course. When they were then faced with the option of giving up their chair to a person in visible physical discomfort, they were far more likely than control group subjects to act beneficently. And when a middle school in a poor neighborhood in San Francisco started offering twice-daily meditation periods, suspensions decreased by 79 percent.
Explore both natural and fictional worlds. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, notes that going out into nature and experiencing “feelings of awe” appears to heighten empathy. You can also build kids’ compassion by sending them to fictional universes. When children read books and become invested in characters’ plights, they can imagine themselves in other people’s shoes.
Be a coach, not a browbeater. To teach children how to rationally consider the consequences of their harmful actions, use logical reasoning. Keltner notes that simply telling kids what is right or wrong — or reacting with strong emotions or physical punishment — produces people who are less likely to want to alleviate others’ pain. By encouraging reflective discussion, you can help children learn how to actively listen and appreciate different perspectives.
Give back to the community. Meaningful volunteer engagement can widen children’s worldview, teach them gratitude and build their awareness of and sensitivity to others’ struggles. Placing children in unfamiliar settings or uncomfortable situations heightens their ability to empathize with anyone who feels like an outsider or lacks a sense of belonging. When families and schools prioritize this kind of service learning, children are more likely to be altruistic.
Talk about the importance of diversity. Teach children that their lives are enriched when they encounter and befriend people from different racial, ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds, or who face different learning or physical challenges. Remind kids that everyone is an individual and that it is dehumanizing to label groups. When kids are self-aware and self-accepting, they are less likely to be judgmental or prejudiced. Promote self-discovery by sharing personal journeys and helping kids understand that everyone has a story.
Get moving. Researchers at the University of Michigan studied middle school children and found that those who were more physically active and involved in team sports scored highest in leadership skills and empathy. Exercise also can have a calming influence.
Impart the art of making amends. Everyone makes mistakes. Kids in particular are still learning, and developmentally they may be self-centered. Encourage children to do their best to behave kindly and ethically, but to recognize when their efforts fall short. Explain that there is tremendous power in an apology, even when the harm caused was unintentional.
In the end, Beth gave Jenna permission to confront the kids who were bothering her. Beth had resisted adult intervention, and her instincts were on the mark. Jenna’s forceful and self-assured approach stopped the tormentors. Beth felt enormously comforted by having a supportive ally. She also shared that Jenna’s rare and generous move had empowered her, and made her more likely to stand up for herself and others in the future. If meanness is like a tsunami, washing over and eroding a child’s self-image, kindness is like a molecule of water slowly rippling outward. That first drop may have a subtle effect, but with persistence, its force can become a current, strong enough to cut through steel, sculpt mountains and change lives.
Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical counselor at the Chrysalis Group and a school counselor in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.
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