Empathy is defined as ‘the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes.’ Neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators believe that encouraging it at an early age can reduce bullying. We read about this in Time magazine. Every person is born with the capacity to be empathetic. Newborns will cry if they hear another baby cry, and kids as young as 14-months-old will offer to help adults who appear to be struggling to reach something. However, early experiences can affect whether a kid will grow up to be compassionate.
For example, look at how the ancient Greeks raised their kids. Spartans, the warriors, raised their boys in a harsh environment. They started boot camp when they were seven and were starved so they would have to steal food. That made them ruthless killers. On the other hand, future leaders in Athens were raised with their mothers and nurses, and started music and poetry training at six. They went on to become pioneers of democracy, art, theater, and culture. What the ancient Greeks did is supported by research. Even though kids can overcome the effects of abuse and neglect, studies show that kids who experience early trauma have a greater risk of aggression.
So what’s the fix? Parents need to model empathy by treating people with compassion, selflessness, and not judging them. Another way is to get kids involved in programs like Roots of Empathy. It’s a school-based curriculum designed to promote compassion. Kids get to see a visiting parent and baby interact. When the baby cries, an instructor helps the mother and students think about what might be bothering the baby and how to make things better. Figuring out what’s wrong helps the kids see the world through the baby’s eyes and understand what it’s like to have needs and not be able to express them clearly. It works - nine separate studies have shown that Roots of Empathy reduces bullying at school and increases supportive behavior among the kids. It’s already in over 3,000 schools in Canada and across the U.S. If you’d like more information on Roots of Empathy, you can visit their website at RootsofEmpathy.org.