Parents don’t set out to raise a bully. Nonetheless, there’s a proliferation of bullying behavior in society that’s led to National Bullying Prevention month. As is the case with many problems, there are things we can do to solve or prevent bullying behavior. While they may sound simple, they’re not always obvious or easy to implement.

Children actually have an inborn capacity for compassion, according to an article on Parenting.com. The tricky part is that their compassion must compete with other developmental forces, including limited impulse control – like pulling the cat’s tail — and the belief that their needs must come first — which makes it hard for them to let cousin Joey push the cool fire truck. Many experts offer sound advice when it comes to fostering empathy in children: how you answer your child’s questions, how you solve conflict at the park, how you nudge his or her growing capacity to think about other people. Temperament does play a role— some kids are naturally more tuned in to other people’s feelings, while other kids are a bit oblivious. Either way, parents have influence in fostering their child’s ability to empathize. Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist on the faculty at Harvard University, writes in a Psychology Today article that many parents today are intensely focused on their children’s happiness and self-esteem. He also notes that many parents believe that happiness and self-esteem are a foundation for morality; that “feeling good” will lead to “doing good.” Yet self-esteem does not lead to caring and responsibility for others – after all, greedy corporate executives and gang leaders can have high self-esteem. Instead of telling your children, “The most important thing is that you are happy,” tell them, “The most important thing is that you are kind, and that you are responsible for others,” he suggests. There’s no end to the advice on raising kind children. But here’s a useful sampling from various experts:

1. Expect kindness and consideration

Weissbourd suggests the following: Don’t let children treat a store clerk, waitress, or babysitters as if invisible; don’t let your child quit a sports team or school chorus without thinking carefully about what it means for the group; don’t let your child simply write off friends he or she finds annoying, or fail to return phone calls from friends or to not give other children credit for their achievements; finally, expect your child to help around the house, and to be helpful to neighbors. Lastly, expect your children to show appreciation for you. A child’s relationship with his or her parents, Weissbourd notes, will be a primary model for their other relationships. “That doesn’t mean making yourself the focus,” he writes. “It means not allowing your children to treat you as a doormat, and expecting them to express some modicum of interest about major events in your life and to thank you for your generosity.”

2. Be careful with emotions and communication

While it’s important to help children understand and articulate their feelings, be wary of over-doing it, particularly when it comes to passing emotional states, Weissbourd advises. This can cause children to dramatize their feelings, and to make their own feelings too precious. In addition, Weissbourd recommends parents help children register kindness and unkindness, justice and injustice in the world. Listen carefully, without quickly judging, to your child’s moral questions and dilemmas. Express your own values, and connect them to your child’s experiences and interpretations.

3. Be truly aware of your own actions

For starters, if you’ve done something wrong or been short-tempered with your child, say “I’m sorry.” The Parenting.com article makes a valid point: All parents make mistakes. It’s how you address them afterward that make the difference. He’ll learn that everyone, even Mom, admits it when she’s wrong. In another article on raising kind children, Christine Carter, Ph.D., suggests parents who express positive feelings and use positive, non-coercive discipline (rather than yelling, spanking, and threatening) raise children who are kinder and more compassionate toward others.

4. Be selective about praise and rewards for behavior

Carter also advises parents to avoid rewarding helping behavior. She writes: “Very young children who receive material rewards for helping others become less likely to help in the future compared with toddlers who only receive verbal praise or receive no reward at all. This research suggests that even the youngest children are intrinsically motivated to be kind, and that extrinsic rewards can undermine this tendency.” Weissbourd recommends parents remain cautious about praise: “Praise your children for specific accomplishments and occasionally tell them how great they are. But avoid constant praising. When children are praised all the time, they can feel judged all the time. Children may feel patronized by unearned praise. And too much global praise—constantly saying “You’re terrific”—can make children feel that their essential value is on the line in everything they do, causing them to inflate their importance, taking either too much credit or too much blame.” He also suggests tempering the push for high achievement. “Too much achievement pressure can diminish children’s sense of self, make them less able to care for others, and more likely to experience others primarily as competitors and threats. Make achievement one theme in the large composition of a life. Sort out your own feelings about achievement and status so you don’t send mixed messages or appear hypocritical to children, undermining your authority.”

5. Expose children to need

Carter accurately points out that parents too often protect kids from pain and suffering, and in so doing, shelter them from others’ needs. She suggests that parents provide kids with opportunities to express compassion, which will demonstrate that compassion is a positive emotion strongly correlated with happiness. K12’s Director of School Counseling Programs, Laurel Barrette, says teaching compassion and empathy early will reap rewards. Her research has revealed empathy is an emotion that’s commonly lacking among perpetual juvenile delinquents. It’s also part of their rehabilitation. “I think one of the most important things that parents can do at any age for their kids is to develop a sense of empathy and self-advocacy as well as resilience, whatever your child may face,” Barrette says. “Help your child care for other people and to be able to care for themselves, and to be able to overcome life’s challenges.”

6. Promote respect in school

One way of promoting respect in the classroom is to encourage students to discuss its presence or absence in situations that are common in their daily lives, suggests R.E. Myers, Ed.D. “Any analysis of bullying reveals that the bully lacks respect for the individual whom he or she bullies, regardless of the reasons for the bully’s unacceptable behavior,” he states. “An effective way to start a meaningful discussion of respect is to present a story about a problem such as bullying and then ask students to resolve it. In other words, individually or collectively they can come up with endings to the story that would create respect and eliminate the bullying. Whether the story is a published one – for example, one taken from a novel or short story – or one that the teacher has written, it should relate directly to the lives of the students.”

Image credit: NIH National Eye Institute 

This is an updated version of an article originally published on K12’s ThinkTank blog in October 2013.

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