When we talk about preventing bullying, we often focus on teaching young people how to practice “upstanding” behavior or intervene when peers are being picked on or singled out. Indeed, it’s critical for young people to learn to stand up for themselves and others, and there’s much that we as parents can do to help our kids master this and other anti-bullying strategies. But as much as we should teach children to go against the tide when it comes to bullying, we must also work with them to turn the tide itself. If we want to prevent bullying, we must do more than teach our kids to be upstanders and not to be bullies. We must start by teaching them to be kind, especially to those different from them in background and character, and to help build caring, inclusive communities.
Why? Bullying is far less likely to take root in school cultures where kindness, empathy, and responsibility for others are the norm, where students care about and feel responsibility to the school community as a whole, and where a critical mass of students model positive behavior for other students. These caring school cultures also help students feel empowered and valued, which in turn means they are less likely to seek power or find value in dominating, demeaning, or marginalizing their peers.
Much of the work of cultivating kindness in our kids begins at home. As parents, we must not only be strong moral role models, we must also be willing to admit our imperfections and show our kids that being a kind and empathetic person is a valuable and lifelong practice. We should also strive to create a culture of accountability at home that begins with us as parents: How, we should ask ourselves, are our own actions influencing our kids’ attitudes and behaviors? Can we be more consistent? Can we show a greater degree of kindness and responsibility to a larger universe of people—including those who seem foreign to us—in our daily lives? Sometimes we need to have the courage to ask respected friends and family—including our kids—for feedback.
There’s no quick fix to be found in the strategies below, but the rewards are many. And it’s never too late to begin.
1. Make your goal practice, not perfection. Being a moral role model for our kids doesn’t mean that we need to be perfect. In fact, it’s much more valuable for kids to see us engaging in a practice of examining and improving our behaviors and reflexes than it is for them to think we’re perfect. Reflect on your bad habits. Do you yell at bad drivers or are you a little too brusque in the morning with the server at your coffee shop? Take a step back during your day and ask, “Would I want my child to behave this way?” Even the most well-intentioned parents have their blind spots, but the critical thing is how we work to address them.
2. Make kindness a family routine. Learning to be kind and respectful of others is in many ways like learning to play a sport or instrument—daily repetition can hone and strengthen skills. At home, set an expectation that your kids have responsibilities around the house and only praise uncommon acts of kindness—when kind actions become routine, they’re more likely to become ingrained. Try an extended “kindness challenge” (such our 30-day #StartWithKindness social media challenge currently running) or create your own series of family challenges for a fun way to help your family make kindness a routine.
3. Expand your child’s circle of concern. Most children easily empathize with and care about a circle of close friends and family. The bigger issue is helping them develop empathy and show kindness for someone outside that circle: the new kid in school, the child who seems most different from them, or even someone who annoys or aggravates them. Ask your kids to think about peers who are outside of their immediate circle and challenge them to try to understand, appreciate, and show kindness to those who seem different or might be having a hard time. Ask them, too, about the school custodian, the bus driver, or other adults in their lives who may be off their radar.
4. Be prepared in case bullying does happen. Raising our kids to be kind and respectful people who are committed to building caring and inclusive communities is our best bet for preventing bullying, but it doesn’t mean that bullying won’t happen. Prepare yourself and your child with a repertoire of effective anti-bullying strategies in the event that they or friends are bullied, and discuss or role-play scenarios to help them identify which strategies work best in specific situations. To learn more about anti-bullying strategies, read our list of resources, including organizations, websites, programs, and curricula for parents and educators.
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Richard Weissbourd is a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he directs the Human Development and Psychology Program. He co-directs the Making Caring Common Project, a national effort to make moral and social development priorities in child-raising.