How to Deprogram Bullies: Teaching Kindness 101

An antibullying program teaches kids to empathize by bringing a mother and baby into the classroom

  • Finn O'Hara for TIME

    During a Roots of Empathy Family Visit to The Carleton Village Public School in Toronto, these 8 and 9 year-olds observe Baby Stephana's problem solving skills, reading her cues to understand when her interest turns into frustration. Neuroscience and social-emotional understanding are a part of this experiential learning.

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    "When kids are able to watch an interaction that's empathic, empathy isn't just being taught; it's being demonstrated," says Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA. ROE is unique, he notes, because it "combines the direct observation of babies and their mothers, weekly time devoted to talking about the internal world of mind and watching a baby grow up over time." Among the program's many big-name fans: the Dalai Lama, who has twice appeared publicly with Gordon and thinks ROE can help spur world peace.

    Although human nature has historically been seen as fundamentally selfish, social neuroscience suggests otherwise. Researchers are finding that empathy is innate in most humans, as well as in some other species. Chimps, for instance, will protest unfair treatment of others, refusing to accept a treat they have rightfully earned if another chimp doing the same work fails to get the same reward.

    The first stirrings of human empathy typically appear in babyhood: newborns cry upon hearing another infant's cry, and studies have shown that children as young as 14 months offer unsolicited help to adults who appear to be struggling to reach something. Babies also show a distinct preference for adults who help rather than hinder others.

    But like language acquisition, the inherent capacity to empathize can be profoundly affected by early experience. The first five years of life are now known to be a critical time for emotional as well as linguistic development. Although children can be astonishingly resilient, studies show that those who experience early abuse or neglect are at much greater risk of becoming aggressive or even psychopathic, bullying other children or being bullied themselves.

    That helps explain why simply punishing bullies doesn't work. Most already know what it's like to be victimized. Instead of identifying with the victims, some kids learn to use violence to express anger or assert power.

    After a child has hurt someone, "we always think we should start with 'How do you think so-and-so felt?'" Gordon says. "But you will be more successful if you start with 'You must have felt very upset.'" The trick, she says, 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. Empathy is based on our ability to mirror others' emotions, and ROE helps children recognize and describe what they're seeing.

    Observing infants is simple and effective. Their helplessness and cuteness evoke a powerful protective response — quite different from what happens when bullies sense vulnerability. "Babies are exquisite teachers of empathy because they are theaters of emotion," says Gordon. "They don't hide anything." If only adolescents were so easy to read.

    Szalavitz is a co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered (Morrow, 2010)

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