Empathy Counteracts Bullying

“Try not to get mad at a baby because thay might learn to be mean when thay grow up”

As often seems to be the case in the trauma field, I’ve focused quite a bit on how to help the victims of anti-gay bullying. While working with victims of violence is of course crucial, I wind up pondering the limitations of this approach. If we really want to make a difference on a global level, we need to also address the bullies. We need to get to the root of how bullies are made.

So what’s the big-picture solution to anti-gay (or any type) of bullying? How about increasing empathy for those who are different? Or increasing empathy and compassion overall?

The goal of one program is to do just that, by exposing young children to babies. Roots of Empathy is “an evidence-based classroom program that has shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among school children by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy.”

The founder, Mary Gordon, had experience working with abusive and neglectful parents. She believed that they were incapable of giving to their own children what they had not received themselves. She devised a proactive parenting skills program, beginning when it is most needed – in early childhood.

Research suggests that human beings have a biological predisposition toward caring for each other. This may be most profound when directed towards the young. Studies have shown that when people exhibit behaviors associated with compassion, their bodies produce more oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is thought to be at the root of compassionate behavior and the ability to bond in interpersonal relationships. The goal is to tap into that innate ability and foster it early on. As we know, when children experience traumas, big T or little t, their development and capacity for positive interpersonal relationships may be impacted. A program like this can counteract those deficits.

David Bornstein, in his New York Times article Fighting Bullying With Babies, describes how the program works:

Roots arranges monthly class visits by a mother and her baby (who must be between two and four months old at the beginning of the school year). Each month, for nine months, a trained instructor guides a classroom using a standard curriculum that involves three 40-minute visits – a pre-visit, a baby visit, and a post-visit. The program runs from kindergarten to seventh grade. During the baby visits, the children sit around the baby and mother (sometimes it’s a father) on a green blanket (which represents new life and nature) and they try to understand the baby’s feelings. The instructor helps by labeling them. “It’s a launch pad for them to understand their own feelings and the feelings of others,” explains Gordon. “It carries over to the rest of class.”

During the visits with the baby and discussions that follow the children are exposed to the following ideas and skills (among many others):

  • emotional literacy: the ability to describe and understand their own feelings and those of others
  • perspective taking: the cognitive aspect of empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.
  • neuroscience: a focus on how “love grows brains”
  • temperament: the idea that each person is unique, acceptance of different personality styles and traits
  • attachment/attunement: children observe the growing bond between parent and baby. They learn all the behaviors that make a secure attachment and how it impacts the baby.
  • male nurturance: by having fathers participate, children are exposed to the idea that males can nurture and express feelings too.

The results of this approach are really impressive. A number of studies have demonstrated that Roots of Empathy significantly decreases aggression and increases prosocial behavior.

Programs like this are a good reminder that we do have the capacity for empathy and compassion within each of us. Creating situations and experiences that foster these capacities can go a long way toward creating a compassionate world.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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5 Responses to Empathy Counteracts Bullying

  1. I love the approach of teaching young children empathy and compassion to help grow responsive adults. I took a look at Roots of Empathy. Nice videos on the website. The added benefit teaching empathy and compassion is to learn about our own temperment ~ a true gift to ourselves. We can’t give what we don’t know or have not received. Thanks for pointing the direction.

  2. KatieK says:

    I have to admit, I would have been driven nuts by the baby “visits” as a grade-schooler. Babies were hardly on my radar, and when they announced their presence on my radar, it was usually with their screams or, uh, pungent diapers. I didn’t find babies cute or amusing as a young schoolkid or as a middle-school student. I think the only feeling I had towards babies was, “Someone please get him/her to be quiet!”😉 I really do hope for the sake of non-baby oriented kids that the baby visits/sessions are optional. Babies can be a real assault on the senses.

    We did have local animal shelter volunteers come to visit our classrooms with young puppies or kittens…LOVED IT! They spoke to us on how to care for pets, and how pets relied on us for their care and gentle handling. We had classroom pets( guinea pig) that we each took turns caring for. This was definitely before the Era of Rampant Allergies, however. As a kid from an at-risk environment, it was a real treat, and we learned self-respect(not “self-esteem”) and respect for other beings in a casual, non-therapeutic, non-workshop environment. Caring for the classroom animal was a part of our daily routine.

    The one thing that troubles me about the severity of the bullying is that the kids who are doing it(tweens and teens) had “Self-esteem” courses and other types of workshops while in school. Looks like that has blown up in our faces, because the viciousness(cyber-bullying, gay-bashing, physical assaults, sexual harassment, stalking, etc) is like nothing that people in my age group ever experienced while in school. I think the most we dealt with was name-calling, and maybe getting our lunch money stolen, but it always died out quickly and the bully moved on. I don’t think “empathy training” and “self-esteem” programs are the answer, at least not based on what I’ve seen in terms of how students these days treat each other. I work on a college campus, and the level of disrespect that some of the students display toward one another, themselves, and the academic staff is appalling. This is supposedly the “self-esteem” generation. I beg to differ.

    • Hi KatieK-

      My read on the program is that they want kids to learn how to understand all those annoying baby behaviors from the baby’s perspective. That is sort of at the heart of the program, helping people shift in a profound way starting that early.

      I am intrigued and impressed by the research showing that it lowered the incidence of aggressive behavior in kids who were already exhibiting bullying!

      • KatieK says:

        True that, but I’d like to see programs that also involve empathy-based interactions with animals and seniors…both are very vulnerable populations in our society and are easily overlooked. Our grade-school class “adopted” a local senior one year and I think both sides benefited, especially those of us who otherwise had limited contact with seniors (such as those with grandparents still in their native country), or like me, whose grandparents had passed early on.

        Oh, well. At least for kids who find babies irritating or annoying, interactions with them via Roots of Empathy could be a form of early birth control and a warning of the consequences of unprotected sex when they’re older; that is one lesson that can never be taught too early.

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