A few years ago, our nation was outraged in response to a video clip which aired over and over again on the news. The video was a child’s eyewitness to the relentless bullying of a 68 year-old school bus aide, who endured insults and threats from middle-school kids. Much of what we heard from the media in the days following this incident was, “this is a teachable moment.” Parents were encouraged to talk to their kids. I don’t know the children involved, their parents, their home environment, or the challenges they face. I do believe, however, that at least 2 key character issues are present when we see this type of behavior: lack of empathy and a lack respect. These are behaviors which must be learned if we expect children to grow up and function well in society.
Empathy is about learning to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how they would feel if treated a certain way. Respecting others- including their personhood, choices, needs and feelings -is also a learned behavior. No one is born with this character trait. I believe we have a bent as humans, toward our own needs and wants rather than those of others. We come into the world wanting things our way. Watch a couple of 2 year-olds playing together for a few minutes and this becomes obvious. Parents will naturally intervene and try to teach kids social skills – sharing, respecting limits (“no”), and not hurting others. Stating the limits (and connecting specific consequences to those limits) is the key to getting the message across. If done consistently, children learn to internalize these lessons. They learn that certain behaviors (either physical or verbal) will cost them in their relationships and in other areas of life.
There’s another piece to this discussion and that is, leadership. How do you teach kids that sometimes doing the right thing means not just staying out of trouble, but also standing up for what’s right even when it’s not cool? I’m not talking about tattling, but choosing to have a positive influence on friends. Not every child on the school bus was involved in that atrocious behavior. Kids have enormous influence over one another, particularly during the middle school years and I can’t help but wonder – what would have happened if at any time, even one of those children had nudged one of their peers when things had gone too far. It’s important to talk to kids about what makes a good friend, and what makes a good leader. What does she like about a specific friend? Does he feel that one friend always wants his own way? Ask them how they want to be treated – “Would you want to be around someone who does or says ____?”
As I discussed in a recent post, kids naturally don’t respond to limits with open arms. They will protest at first, and it will be painful, but this is where growth and maturity develop. Kids learn to respect limits when they learn that the limits aren’t going away and their parents won’t give in simply because of the kids’ protest. If this is developed at home, it will spill over into behavior out in the world.
How have you talked with your children, nieces/nephews, children you coach, etc. about leading vs. following?
This article is intended for general education purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional counseling or medical care. If you are interested in seeking professional counseling, please call The Stone Foundation at 410-296-2004.
Elicia McIntyre, a licensed clinical social worker, and graduate of Smith College School for Social Work, has 15 years’ experience providing counseling to adults, children and families in the Baltimore-Washington metro area. She has helped clients navigate life transitions, depression, anxiety and relationship difficulties. Elicia helps couples increase emotional intimacy, and foster healthy connections among family members. She has spent the past 3 years traveling nationally and overseas, providing education and intervention to military service members and their families on communication, stress management and building healthy relationships.