How Not to Raise a Bully: The Early Roots of Empathy

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Discipline, but Don't Punish?
The cold environment of an orphanage can be considered on a spectrum of punishment, at the other end of which is simple child discipline — an issue that sometimes confounds even the most mindful parents. How do you teach a child right from wrong without being too tough or slipping into abuse? Who among us has not raised our voice — O.K., screamed — while disciplining our children?

But shouting at or, worse, hitting a child results in fear, rather than an understanding on the child's part of why he or she is being punished, say researchers. Over the long term, the routine use of corporal punishment, like spanking, not only fails to change behavior for the better but has also been shown to increase aggression in children.

"Instead of starting from the assumption that you have to beat the badness out of a child, turn on that empathy and compassion switch," says Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.

In other words, start by teaching children to understand their own behavior and feelings — it provides the basic tools for understanding the behavior and feelings of others. For instance, when dealing with a child who has hurt another person, help him or her "anchor how they felt in the moment," says Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, a school-based program designed to foster compassion. "We always think we should start with, 'How do you think so-and-so felt?' But you will be more successful if you start with, 'You must have felt very upset.' The trick is to help children describe how they felt, so that the next time this happens, they've got language. Now they can say, 'I'm feeling like I did when I bit Johnny.' "

When children are able to understand their own feelings, they are closer to being able to understand that Johnny was also hurt and upset by being bitten — that "switch" is the spark for a change in behavior.

But understanding suffering alone does not teach empathy, says Gordon, which helps explain why children who suffer more — enduring abuse at home, for instance — are more likely to become bullies. It's not that they don't know what it feels like to be hurt; it's that they have learned that violence is the way to express anger or assert power.

Roots of Empathy is being used in about 3,000 kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools in Canada, and 40 schools in Seattle. In the program children get to see a visiting parent and infant interact in the classroom about once a month and watch the foundations of empathy being built. When the baby cries, a Roots of Empathy instructor helps the mother and students think about what might be bothering the baby and how to make things better.

Students are taught that a crying baby isn't a bad baby, but a baby with a problem. By trying to figure out what's going on, the children learn to see the world through the infant's eyes and understand what it might be like to have needs but not be able to express them clearly.

"We love when we get a colicky baby," says Gordon, because then the mother usually tells the class how frustrating and annoying it is when the baby won't stop crying. That gives children insight into the parent's perspective — and how children's behavior can affect adults — something they have often never thought about. "If you look at the development of empathy, one of the key features is perspective-taking," says Gordon. "In coaching that skill, we help them [take the perspective of] their classmates."

To date, nine separate studies have shown that Roots of Empathy has helped reduce bullying at school and increased supportive behavior among students. Many school districts in the U.S., including New York City's, have recently expressed interest in using Gordon's approach.

Setting an Empathetic Example
A child's capacity for empathy can further be encouraged when parents model empathetic behavior themselves. When parents treat other people with compassion, selflessness and a lack of judgment, children copy those behaviors. "Empathy can't be taught, but it can be caught," says Gordon.

Her own family was a shining example. As a young girl in Newfoundland, Gordon says she grew up in a large, multigenerational family — including four siblings, two grandparents and a mentally disabled uncle — that also often included "strays." Her parents liked to take in people in need: unmarried pregnant women who had no place to go, recently released prisoners who would stop by for a free meal. Gordon also tagged along with her mother, an artist (Gordon's father was the Canadian Minister of Labor), as she visited poor families in the community, bringing them food, clothing and coal for heat.

When young Mary sneered and asked why a woman stored coal in her bathtub instead of bathing in it, her mother admonished her — but in private. "My mom would never embarrass anyone, so she wouldn't embarrass me as a child either. She saw the dignity in everybody," Gordon says. "In the car, she said, 'You judged that woman when you made that face.' She would say, 'She's made the best decisions she could with the challenges she has, and you don't know her challenges.' "

Not every child is raised by a Mother Gordon. But even children who have survived rough environments — like the gang members Teny Gross works with in Providence — can be helped to "catch" empathy.

Gross has found that his outreach workers are most successful when they build relationships based on caring and fairness. "People have a sense of justice," Gross says, explaining why even troubled teens respond well when counselors, with whom they have an ongoing relationship, take a firm stance with them regarding their behavior. "[Our kids are] used to injustice; they're used to abuse at school and from the police. But when constraints come from a place of love and caring, people don't think it violates their sense of justice."

Gross's program focuses on introducing young men and boys in gangs to a new network of people who not only care about them, but also do so dependably — providing the kind of secure environment that many of them missed in childhood. By employing former gang members to mentor the troubled boys, Gross makes it easier for them to foster relationships of mutual understanding and connection with one another. Mentors show up consistently at the boys' important events — court dates, funerals — demonstrating care and concern. They also organize social outings for the boys, like a trip to a local beach last summer for a day of surfing. That excursion purposefully included boys from rival gangs, in the hopes that the introductions could help reduce violence later on.

Indeed, research shows that simple exposure to other kinds of people in a friendly setting can increase your empathy toward them. Although some gangsters and sociopaths may never be reachable, Gross holds out hope. He points to statistics like the near halving of the U.S. murder rate over the past 20 years that suggest a "different life is possible. It's not easy, but a lot of it is common sense," he says.

Szalavitz is the co-author of Born for Love:¬†Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered (Morrow, April 2010).

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