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.