We all want to protect our children from bullying. Most parents, I imagine, would be horrified to hear that their children are being picked on at school, and equally horrified to hear that they are bullies themselves. (Right now my clairvoyance tells me that you are thinking that you have a really nice kid, certainly not one that is a bully. This is because you are a nice person.)

But can bad kids ever happen to nice parents? Or rather, do parents who value kindness and compassion ever raise mean kids?

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I think it probably happens all the time. Thirteen million kids will be bullied in the US this year. Three million are absent from school each month because they feel unsafe there. Bullies aren’t necessarily “bad kids,” but clearly the bullying behavior of otherwise good kids adds up to a massive problem in our communities.

Bullying occurs—online and in person—when there is an imbalance of power. Bullies intend to harm others physically or emotionally, usually repeatedly, knowing that their victims may have a hard time defending themselves. (Thanks to The Bully Project for this definition.)

As parents, it is our responsibility to do what we can to make sure that our children aren’t bullies (besides hide behind our pure intentions and upstanding values). The good news is that we can consciously raise kids who are more likely to stand up for a victim of bullying than they are to be perpetrators. Here are five things we can teach our children so that they are kind and compassionate:

(1) How their actions affect others. Bullies tend to know that what they are doing is wrong, but they usually don’t understand how their behavior affects others. Truly understanding that meanness can hurt someone for a lifetime can change a bully’s willingness to harm others. Build empathy by watching videos of children hurt by bullying (a new documentary out this week, Bully, promises to be a good start). And let kids experience how their actions can affect others for the good by giving them opportunities to help others.

(2) How to understand their own emotions and feelings. Before a child can really understand their influence on other people’s feelings, they need to be able to understand their own emotions. Build this emotional intelligence by emotion coaching them.

(3) How to express negative feelings like anger, powerlessness, and stress without hurting others. Kids need to learn the difference between feeling bad (which is always okay) and behaving badly (not okay). Parents are powerful models in this arena.  When you are angry with your children or spouse do you call them names? Spank? When you are stressed are you likely to yell? Kids need to be taught directly how to deal with feelings like anger (e.g., to calm themselves down by taking a walk or deep breaths, or by petting the dog). They also need to be taught that indirectly, by observing us doing these things.

(4) Teach kids how to feel powerful within their relationships—in a positive way. Bullying can come from a sense of powerlessness, and it can often be prevented by showing kids how to feel powerful without being mean. Kids feel powerful when they contribute to something larger than themselves, so make sure your children have plenty of opportunities to genuinely help those around them. Giving kids chores and responsibilities around the house or classroom helps them see that they are useful and needed, giving them a sense of power.

(5) Treat others with compassion yourself. This goes without saying, but kids need to see their parents treating other people with empathy and without judgement. Recently I heard a mother comment to her pre-teen daughter, “That girl’s shirt is so trashy. I will never let you wear something like that.” Her daughter replied, “I know, right? It is so ugly.” This dialog, while it might have been intended to instruct, endorsed a mean-spiritedness towards others.

Can we prevent our children from being bullies? I think so. It starts with the obvious: being really clear about our expectations for how they will treat others, including their siblings, their classmates, and that chubby kid on the bus. But we can’t stop there. Raising kind kids requires an active effort to teach them the social skills they need to be powerful in their relationships—without hurting others.

So the next time you hear someone say “boys will be boys,” or you shake your head and wonder why “there are mean girls in every class,” don’t lie to yourself. Kids are not typically “cruel at this age,” (whatever age that might be). Don’t make excuses for bad behavior: teach kindness instead.

There is so much beyond these five things that we parents can do.  Dozens of suggestions can be found in this toolkit for parents from The Bully Project. 

What are you going to do to prevent bullying in your community? Inspire others by leaving a comment.

Watch the trailer for the new documentary, Bully:


© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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