Teaching your kids empathy can be a strong weapon against raising a bully.

Ever wonder where the parents of the school bully went wrong? For this article I consulted with Kate Walton, a former public school teacher who has developed very effective anti-bullying strategies for schools, and who speaks to schools and universities on the topic of “The Power of Human Kindness.” A mother of two, Walton is also the author of the young adult novels about bullying, “Cracked” and “Empty.”

“Bullies come from all kinds of households and every kind of parent/caregiver,” says Walton. “But one thing the bullies I’ve encountered had in common was a lack of empathy.”

What is empathy? It’s the ability to “feel” what someone else is feeling, namely, sadness, fear or depression. A child who can empathize is one who can “understand” what another child feels. Empathy isn’t just recognizing an emotion in another human, but feeling it for them.

“Bullies were not taught to put themselves into others’ shoes; hence, the ease with which they tortured their fellow students,” says Walton. “Quite simply, not teaching your child how to be empathetic and compassionate is a parenting failure.”

Walton says it’s a parent’s job to teach their kids to be a productive member of society, and this includes treating others with dignity and respect. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t come naturally for many children,” says Walton.

She drives home the point that parents must teach their kids to think of others, to be compassionate and kind, to “seize the teachable moments.” This is done, says Walton, by having purposeful and crafted conversations.

“Acknowledge and discuss injustice, racism, hatred…jerk behavior. Show your child what compassion looks and sounds like every chance you get.” Kids must be praised.

Parents of Bullies

What are the odds that bullies have parents such as Walton describes here?  When someone is a bully, this goes way beyond just a bratty child who hasn’t been taught discipline. Think about it: Is bullying a discipline problem? Or an empathy problem? As in lack of?

Ingrain Empathy to Prevent Bullying

Bullies are sadly lacking in empathy; this is obvious to the layman, to other children, even. Parents can’t teach empathy by lecturing about it.

They must BE empathetic towards their children, and they must put their kids in circumstances that cultivate and grow empathy within them (such as having their kids do volunteer work with those less fortunate).

Forcing your kids to share their toys won’t cultivate empathy. In fact, when parents get angry about the sharing issue and force it upon their kids, this is a form of bullying on the part of the parent.

Bullying behavior can be learned from parents. But so can empathy. It’s difficult for bullying and empathy to co-exist in the same child’s body.

“If parents teach their children to think of other people — to think of how other people feel first — before acting or reacting, well then, those children will forever be empowered to think on their feet,” says Walton. “And most importantly to think with their heart and their head, which is the polar opposite of bully behavior.”