Teaching Our Children the Power of Empathy

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In regards to mean girls — the people, not the near-perfect movie — the best parenting advice I ever received was before I ever had children.

I was teaching middle school, and a colleague shared that his daughter came home from school after being a victim of mean girl bullying. As she cried into her pillow, he patted her on the back and said, “I want you to remember this feeling.” She likely looked at him, horrified that she should remember her devastation, mortification, and sorrow. He continued, “If you ever feel the urge to be mean to someone someday, remember this feeling. Never be the reason some other kid is home at night crying into her pillow.” 

My co-worker’s advice particularly hit home for me at that moment because I was the after-school drama teacher. Twice a year, I cast shows. The night of casting, I’d post the cast list and go home, get into pajamas, and wait. Parents would email me, telling me that their daughters were home, crying into their pillows — because of me. Of course, I couldn’t make everyone happy because not everyone could be a lead. The most I could do was help the kids find friendship and camaraderie in the school play. I could help them practice resilience and frustration tolerance when things didn’t go their way.  

Teaching our kids to be allies, not enemies.

When I first gave this advice as a parent, it was to my son. He’d had a hard day at school and had said some mean things. He felt ashamed. We talked about how that’s a feeling that feels wrong in your body. We talked about not being the reason someone comes home and feels bad about themselves. As a parent, I’ve come to learn it’s hard enough being a kid in general. We need to teach our kids to be allies, not enemies. We need to teach them the power of empathy.

Correcting mean moments. 

I talked to my son about what the mean kid needs to do next. We all mess up sometimes. When someone gets hurt as a result of our words or actions, we might be tempted to feel ashamed and hide. Instead, we need to say sorry and work to repair the damage we inadvertently or purposefully caused. 

My co-worker gave me the first part of the advice to help prevent hurt kids from hurting others, from perpetuating the cycle of bullying, but it was my own life experience that helped me pass this lesson on to my kids: Don’t be the reason someone comes home at night and cries. But if somehow you are, do the work to make it better. 

Tags: Friends, Motherhood, parenting

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Laura Wheatman Hill

Laura Wheatman Hill lives in Oregon with her two children. She has been published by CNN, Real Simple, Parents, and others. See Full Bio

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