Bullying: An Empathy Challenge. Stand up!

Last week I attended an author talk at the Denver JCC by Emily Bazelon (@emilybazelon) of Slate and Yale Law School. She has researched and written about bullying extensively, including her book Sticks & Stones:; Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. Some more of my thoughts on her research:


Bullying incidents have an audience nine out of ten times. Yet, those bystanders intervene only 20% of the time. More than half the time they intervene, they’re successful at stopping the bullying event.

Bazelon talks about the empathy challenge presented in the social environments she studied of children and adolescents in the US over the last few years. She cites research of Clifford Nass that shows the presence of social media in children’s lives decreases the quality of their friendships and that face-to-face interactions boost the quality of friendships. In this dynamic, it seems our children are losing opportunities to engage empathically with their peers and learn the social negotiation skills needed to build resilience, pro-social behaviors and interpersonal connections. 

Research published recently by the New School for Social Research in NYC (NYTimes Well blog post) shows that children who read literary fiction (as opposed to serious non-fiction) may benefit from increased empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. When children are more empathic and attuned to social cues, they’re likely to intervene more when bullying happens. I’d also venture to say they’ll be less likely to bully because they’ll have more effective behaviors to get what they need, namely agency and a feeling of power.

Character Education in school and out is essential to boosting the pro-social, empathic behaviors in our communities. This happens at the dinner table, in the car, during practice, in an assembly, at the start of each morning’s home room. When it’s a Special Anti-Bullying Assembly or a Day Against Bullying, that’s great. It sets expectations and makes clear what’s appropriate and what’s not.

However, one-off events don’t ingrain these ideas and values into practice and behavior. It’s essential that they become pervasive into the daily lived experiences so they are internalized by each person in the community. Models and practices of behaviors that build resilience and empathy need to be in the greetings at the start of every class, on posters, in assignments, during team practice. They have to be built into the system and a vibrant part of the culture.

Rita Pierson gives a boisterous and heart-warming TED talk about the importance of relationships in creating effective educational environments. Worth every minute, and then again! Every Kid Needs A Champion

Standing up to bullying is tough and scary, whether one is the victim or a bystander. It is our responsibility as adults to give children and adolescents easier ways to intervene. Effective intervention doesn’t always require a principal, a parent or a cavalry (though in serious cases, the first two are essential). We can support our children to be confident bystanders who intervene by teaching them simple steps that actually help. Stepping closer to the victim and facing the bully. Stating out loud, “He’s my friend. I like him.” Putting a gentle hand on the victim’s shoulder. Sending them a text later, “Are you ok?” or “I like you” can make a huge difference. Responding to a taunting thread online “She’s my friend and I like her” will stop a bullying incident pretty quickly. 

This Irish PSA gives a stark example of hostile adolescent bullying and the power of a simple gesture to stand with a victim in silence, a show of solidarity, that brings a community together, empowers the victim, and leaves the bullies speechless. Check it out: Stand Up!

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