Teaching our children the skills they need to survive and thrive in a world where there is no shortage of bullies is critical if we want to build a better tomorrow.
Whether we like it or not, what we learn in childhood is what we carry with us into adulthood.
I was bullied as a child and I’ve met numerous adult bullies since; both at work and around hobbies. No one ever taught how to deal with a bully, let alone how to stop it from happening to me.
As a mother, I wanted to figure out what to tell my daughter and how to support her when (not if) she runs into bullying.
We can’t keep our children from getting upset – and we shouldn’t even try
Getting upset is part and parcel of life. Sending kids to their room to calm down won’t stop them being upset.
All it does is gives them the message that they are all alone with their emotions — which in themselves are already confusing and frightening — and that they had better repress them.
We’re also signalling that experiencing emotions is undesirable. We’re teaching them that there is no safe place to express emotions and that there is no support for working through issues that are difficult and uncomfortable.
The problem with this is, that when we repress emotions, they stop being under our conscious control. Stuffing them down will only ensure that they pop-up entirely unregulated when we don’t want or expect them to.
In children, repressed emotions tend to push out in any way they can and it can be very frightening (to both us and them) when our children seem completely out of control.
They become dysregulated and out of balance when they need to express emotion but can’t, and end up lashing out or acting out instead.
Denying emotions or making children feel in the wrong for having them doesn’t help them control them or work through them.
Accepting feelings is the only way to resolve them
What we need to do is accept our children’s’ feelings, even when they’re inconvenient for us (as feelings often are).
When empathy becomes our go-to response, our children learn that emotions may not feel good, but that they’re not dangerous either.
They learn to accept and process the feelings as they come up, instead of stuffing them down, where they get uglier.
When our children know that someone understands, they will feel better (even if it’s just a bit) and they are more likely to cooperate. They also won’t have to yell in order to be heard.
When our support helps them learn that they can live through bad feelings and be okay – that the sun will come out again after the storm – they will begin to develop the resilience that will allow them to come back stronger when life knocks them down.
We perfect [life]. But it doesn’t work. Because what we do is take fat from our butts and put it into our cheeks. [ . . . ] And we perfect, most dangerously, our children.
Let me tell you what we think about children. They’re hard-wired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say: ‘Look at her, she’s perfect, and my job is just to keep her perfect and make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.’
That’s not our job, our job is to look and say ‘You know what, you’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging’.
That’s our job.– Brené Brown, The power of vulnerability, TEDxHouston
When we reach out and are vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us, as Brené Brown says. Learning how to deal with adversity isn’t something that we should just wish our children will never need.
More important than teaching them to succeed, is teaching them how to pick themselves up, again and again, when adversity does hit. The most essential thing we can teach them is empathy because that is our way back to ourselves and to each other.
Reading for pleasure builds empathy
Author Neil Gaiman advocates reading fiction as an effective way to develop empathy in children.
He says that fiction, first and foremost, is the gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next in the story, even when things are difficult and someone is in trouble, is a real and compelling one.
Reading on forces us to learn new words and to think differently. Letting ourselves be taken by that pull to turn to the next page allows us to discover that reading is pleasurable. Once we’ve learned that, we’ve opened the door to reading everything – and reading is key here.
Being able to read means that we can navigate the world and understand what we are reading. We can formulate our own thoughts in writing and we can comprehend what others have written – this is our door to understanding and communicating with others. It is our portal to exchanging ideas with people near and far away, both in time and in space.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature.
You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.– Neil Gaiman, Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming
The simplest way to raise literate children is to show them that reading is pleasurable. Find books that they like, give them access to those books, let them read those books and read them together.
All children have different tastes and you shouldn’t discourage your children from reading fiction simply because you think it’s wrong: reading books you don’t like is a route to finding books you do like.
The world doesn’t have to be like this: things can be different
As per Gaiman, empathy is a tool for building people into groups. It allows us to function as more than just self-obsessed individuals – and reading fiction, reading for pleasure, is how we access that empathy.
When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people.
Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it, and look out through other eyes.
You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a ‘me’, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.– Neil Gaiman, Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming
Gaiman explains that once we’ve visited these other worlds, we’re never going to be entirely content with the world that we grew up in, the world that we inhabit.
This is how we become discontent, but being discontent is a good thing. Discontented people have seen that things can be better and they will begin to modify and improve their worlds, leave them better than they were.
Discontented people stand up and proclaim “I have a dream” and endeavour to make that dream a reality.
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