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It amazes me how early in life the bullying starts. At age 3, my oldest was tortured by a child who would secretly taunt him and the other children, expressing his desire to do harm to them. That summer, my oldest started acting really strangely…a sudden onset of aggression combined with a fear of going to school. It wasn’t until talking to other parents with children exhibiting the same sudden onset of strange behaviors that we isolated the problem. I talked to the teacher and director – and the problem was fixed when they helped me remove my child from the situation.
I won’t always be able to protect my sons. I won’t always WANT to protect them…they’ll need to stand up for themselves. However at 3 – or even 5, they are still building these skills. I experienced the other side of the parenting role a few weeks ago at a barbecue. An awesomely kind and popular kid in our neighborhood was being taunted by another kid from their school who does not live in the neighborhood (a nice enough kid, at least to my children, I should note). The taunting made the teacher in me uncomfortable. Then the fists started flying. The child being bullied started crying, though he hid it well from his friends. My heart ached for him.
When I went over to the father to let him know what was going on, I was impressed with his response. I had noticed he had moved himself closer to the kids when the taunting started. Even as a few fists started flying, he stood back and carefully and attentively watched them. He told me that he needed his child to be able to stand his ground, so he was going to let him practice through trial and error as he supervised. He would step in if things got out of hand. But, to prepare his child for the real world when Dad wouldn’t be around to protect him, he needed his son to have the confidence to stand up to those bullying him.
I realize I’ve done the same with my child when there have been scuffles at playdates over toys or accidental bodily contact. I’m there to guide him and try to help him learn to be kind – but just because I teach him to be kind, it doesn’t mean that everyone will always be kind to him.
1. Start at Home with Sibling Kindness
I have 3 boys who are self-proclaimed “best buddies.” If kids think it is okay to pick on a sibling (because of cultural acceptance of this thing called “sibling rivalry”), those behaviors become natural – possibly spilling out of the home. In our home, it is never okay to make someone else feel badly. It is never okay to make someone else feel badly – period.
2. Don’t Be Too Quick to Point Out Differences
As parents, we often overly prepare kids for when they might experience differences for fear that they might unintentionally say something that hurts someone else or embarrasses us. I realized recently that our kids sometimes have a really unique perspective on differences. One time, my oldest and I were out and about when we saw a child his age that was in a wheelchair. I was prepared for questions about the wheelchair, but instead my son exclaimed, “How cool is that! That kid can drive.” I was glad I didn’t push the subject before he asked.
3. Practice Ways to Respond to Unkind Behavior
Prepare your child with a series of responses for how to respond when someone is not being nice to them. They might walk away, tell an adult, or respond:
- It hurts my (0r so-and-so’s) feelings when you say that to me (him/her).
- We should include so-and-so, we have room for one more.
- I’m going to go play with so-and-so, it is the right thing to do.
4. Care for Animals
Take time to practice caring about animals. Volunteer at the local animal shelter, participate in turtle walks, visit conservation centers. Taking care of animals makes for opportunities to practice empathy skills that can be applied to human-to-human interactions.
5. Watch a Movie about Kindness and Empathy
One great way for kids to understand empathy and kindness is to see it modeled on TV shows and movies. Media can make it easier for kids to understand what actions they should take to display kindness. In order to ensure they take the concept of kindness from show, parents should watch along with their child and have a conversation that focuses on the empathy displayed by the characters.
Netflix offers so many choices to help facilitate conversations about kindness for everyone from toddlers to teens. They even have a new original series starring Ricky Gervais, Derek, which can serve as an inspiration to us as adults!
(1) Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Vol. 1 Ep. 6: Friends Help Each Other (2)My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Season 3, Ep. 4: One Bad Apple
(3) Arthur, Season 15, Ep. 8: Muffy’s Classic Classy Club / Best Enemies (4) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (5) Super Why, Season 1, Ep. 61: The Ugly Duckling: Becoming a Swan (6) The Fox and the Hound
Common Sense Media also offers a list of movies to promote empathy – check them out for even more suggestions!