Teaching Empathy Early May Prevent Bullying

Friday December 21, 2012

By Sherri M. Gordon

There was an interesting article in the New York Times this month titled Understanding How Children Develop Empathy. In it, the author illustrates that children as young as one year old make attempts at concern and reassurance. I, in fact, have seen this in my own children.

One of my favorite memories of my daughter occurred when she was just about 12 months old. I had just given her a brand new stuffed kitten as a gift that she absolutely adored. But, when she saw one of her playmates crying, she toddled up to her friend and without saying a word, offered up her new toy in an effort to make her friend feel better. I was amazed that a child so young could exhibit prosocial behavior.

Prosocial behavior occurs when one person voluntarily does something that is intended to benefit another person. In other words, that person perceives someone else's distress and reacts to it in a positive way. And researchers are finding that these behaviors can be nurtured in children at a very young age.

In fact, parents can try to foster prosocial behavior in very young children by taking advantage of their emerging sense of self and increasing their cognitive understanding of the world around them. In addition to modeling kindness and compassion, parents also can look for opportunities to point out how others might feel in a variety of different situations. They also can offer opportunities for kids to help others. These actions build a foundation for a kind, compassionate and empathetic child.

But fostering empathy and encouraging prosocial behavior does more than just create nice, altruistic, emotionally intelligent kids. It also can have a significant impact on how kids respond to social justice issues, specifically, bullying. In fact, fostering empathy at a young age can go a long way in bullying prevention.

Although most adults focus on bullying prevention once kids reach late elementary school and early middle school, experts have found that it may be more beneficial to address bullying at ages as young as preschool and kindergarten. In fact, these early years are an important time to teach children how to interact in positive ways with their peers.

For more tips on reducing bullying in the early years, see my article Bullying Prevention in the Early Years.

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

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