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Teach empathy to ward off bullying

By Catherine Pearlman, Special to CNN
  • Catherine Pearlman says parents don't imagine their own children could be bullies
  • Kids get mixed messages from media, she says, so parents must actively teach empathy
  • Encourage kids to participate in charitable work, she says
  • Pearlman: It's hard for kids to bully or mock when they have an idea about others' hardships

Editor's note: Catherine Pearlman is a social worker who also works as an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University where she is a doctoral candidate. She's founder of The Family Coach, a business that specializes in helping families resolve everyday problems.

(CNN) -- My kid would never be the bully.

This is what most parents think about their children.

In my work as a family coach, I'm invited into people's homes to help resolve parenting issues, and what I see there is families trying to instill manners and kindness-trying to head off destructive behaviors and teach children to make it in the world, happy and successful.

They teach "please" and "thank you." Siblings are taught to respect each other and keep their hands to themselves. In the playground, parents are vigilant in quashing episodes of bullying when they see them. No bullies here, right?

That is what you would hope. It's not as simple as that.

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We live in a time where it's easy to isolate ourselves from all sorts of people in society we might otherwise regularly rub shoulders with. Increasingly kids don't need to go out in the world to work out social interactions -- they can do that in silent text and instant messages, their online behavior invisible to busy parents who might normally be helping to guide them.

They absorb a TV and YouTube culture that's not shy about humiliating and berating others. And particularly in an economic downturn, where blame becomes a blunt instrument, they get a steady diet of diatribes from politicians and media pundits aimed at groups of individuals lumped together as "the other"-- fair game for our frustrations.

In the face of all this, it's not enough to teach children manners. Parents need to make a direct effort to teach empathy.

Empathy, in simple terms, is the ability to place oneself in another's shoes, to feel another's suffering vicariously. When children do not develop empathy, they act solely in pursuit of their own desires. While this may be pleasurable to the child, the lack of consciousness of others feelings is not good for society and may make kids more inclined to bully.

To push back, we need to start young in teaching kids about caring for others. This should be modeled in everyday behavior, of course, but it also must be done overtly and regularly.

Darrick Jolliffe and David Farrington at the University of Cambridge in England conducted research on an empathy rating scale and found that the development of empathy is closely related to parental supervision.

Furthermore, adolescents who report that they would help victims of bullying exhibited high empathy. Another study on cyberbullying and parental perception of their children's experiences by researchers in the Netherlands shows that parents often underestimate their children's involvement in bullying.

Infants and toddlers have little measurable capacity for empathy but as they grow emotionally and socially, the capacity appears to develop. Empathy is learned. Therefore, parents need to actively teach it, just as they do the multiplication tables or how to swing a bat.

The ideas do not have to be grand.

For starters, parents should take the time to talk to their children about what they -- as a family, in their community -- can do to help make the world better. Instead of just soccer practice on Saturday mornings, for example, how many families also might make time in the week to deliver meals to homebound seniors?

Instead of purchasing more Christmas presents, how many families are hosting toy drives for the less-fortunate kids in the neighborhood? How about for immigrant families who are struggling in ways many of our children can't comprehend?

These things seem obvious to many of us-they are good for everyone involved and help create well-rounded, responsible, compassionate adults comfortable in the world. But how many of us actually do these things with our kids? It's much harder to dismiss or mock someone when you've seen their lives firsthand and have an idea of how they might feel.

Here are some other ideas.

If we want kids to understand the hardships of others in their community, take them to the local family shelter or food bank to volunteer.

How about requiring elementary school children to have 20 mandatory hours of community service per year to advance to the next grade?

Have a lemonade stand, but use the profits to benefit someone in need. Make every Friday mix-up day in the cafeteria so that everyone sits with a different classmate and learns that those kids are real people with real feelings.

Instead of having homecoming queens, have awards for the kid in school who helps make a difference in the world.

The work that schools are doing to educate students about bullying and to stop further incidents, such as the cyberbullying that preceded Rutgers student Tyler Clementi's suicide last week, is well researched and highly regarded. However, there needs to be a focus at home too.

When we, as families and as members of society, show that we value empathy, our kids will begin to show that they do, too. Maybe that is one way to help stop bullying.

As parents we don't get a do-over. It does no good to look back and wish you had done something different. Before you get the call from school or the police that your child was involved in bullying, teach your child about empathy.

Precious lives, like Tyler Clementi's, are at stake.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Catherine Pearlman