Teaching Compassion and Empathy

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Most parents grew up in a time when pulling pranks and teasing mostly was ignored with the belief “kids will be kids.” While it’s been this way for generations, but today’s world is different. Technology has taken bullying to a whole new level of cruelty and the consequences can be dire.

Nancy Rue, a mother, grandmother, former high school and college English teacher, and the author of more than 100 books, travels the country speaking at schools and churches about issues facing children and teens. Recently, she spoke out about the Rutgers University student who committed suicide. She says the issues behind bullying need to be addressed before children reach adolescence.

“Even taking into account the possibility that the Rutgers students who videotaped Tyler Clementi believed they were pulling a ‘prank,’ indicates to me we aren’t taking bullying seriously enough in the younger years, when the cruel teasing first begins,” Rue says.

Here, she answers some questions about teaching children compassion in the early years.


Q. Is cruelty getting crueler?

We all unconsciously bear the scars of abuse from childhood friends, and it has affected how we interact with people. Our society has become desensitized, almost dehumanized. If harsh teasing is just what people do, then it must be OK for talking trash to be a ratings boost for radio DJs,  for using cynicism and profanity to get laughs a standard for TV comics, and for being bullies to get acceptance from their peers for 9-year-old boys. So, yes, cruelty is getting crueler, and technology is making it easier to be cruel anonymously.


Q. Life is stressful, and increasing numbers of children are anxious and depressed. Does this compound the issue?

Absolutely. For the bullied kid, the mean comment or well-timed snub can be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back — a back already burdened with school and sports pressure, family financial issues, and the standard of perfection which girls, in particular, find it impossible to reach.

For the bully, those same pressures can reach a boiling point — the kid has to get on top of something in order to regain some control, so why not the vulnerable classmate who’s likely to crumble and provide some momentary satisfaction?


Q. What mistakes are parents making? How are they turning their heads when they shouldn’t be?

It’s difficult for parents to believe their kids could be bullies. If a daughter uses put-down language when she talks about other girls or if a son has trouble following rules or manipulates his way out of them, and if kids blow up at home over small issues or are easily frustrated when things don’t fall into place, these are all reasons to pay attention to what’s going on. If another parent calls saying your child is mean to hers, and you confront your daughter and get, “That girl is such a crybaby — she can’t even take a joke,” that’s cause for concern.

Interactions between siblings are hugely important. Yes, brothers and sisters fight, but a total lack of respect for each other (physical abuse, cruel language or constant belittling) is not normal sibling rivalry. It’s easy for busy, overworked parents to let that go, and hope they’ll grow out of it. But the building of compassion and the formation of respect for the dignity of every human being begins at home. Otherwise, if it’s OK to constantly jab at your brother and tell him he’s a dork, it must be OK to do it to your classmates, your teammates, or some kid on the Internet you don’t even know.

The largest group in the whole bullying process is what author Barbara Coloroso calls the bystanders — the kids who watch it go on day after day and feel helpless to do anything. Even if parents are certain their kids aren’t perpetrating or suffering from relationship abuse, they need to talk to them about what they can do to help, without fear that the bullies are going to turn on them. Bullying affects everybody, which means all parents need to educate themselves and take a firm and caring stand with their kids on the subject, even before it comes up.


Q. How can parents better role model acceptance and compassion?

Kids learn even more from what we do than from what we say. Even teenagers, who often appear to be aloof and detached, are watching our behavior and absorbing it. Parents need to watch how they talk about their co-workers, friends and other family members — always remembering they are human beings. We also need to be careful how we talk to sales people, repairmen and restaurant servers. We need to check our attitudes about celebrities and elected officials — are we quick to make a judgment, slap on a label or come out with a string of expletives?

Probably most important, is that we need to pay careful attention to how we treat each other in the home — husband and wife, parent and child. Ordering a spouse around or bad-mouthing him or her, or treating perfect strangers more politely than your own family members, is the root of a child’s mistreatment of or disregard for other people.

Start by banning certain words from the household vocabulary, such as “stupid” and “gay,” and you’ll go a long way in helping children think about what they’re saying when they talk to other human beings. CP