The start of a new school year is exciting for kids?new friends, new teachers, new opportunities. But in a recent CNN/Time poll, one-third of teens who responded said that they are fearful of a violent incident happening at their school. And teens aren't the only ones affected.
Last year, my daughter, then a high school freshman, asked me if she could stay home on the anniversary of the Columbine school massacre. The week prior to April 20, there had been three threats of violence written on a wall in the school bathroom. The principal spoke to the students over the PA system encouraging their attendance on the 20th and assuring them of their safety. My middle school son was worried for his sister, and my two elementary-age daughters cried for her safety and questioned their own. The fear was like cancer, metastasizing and contaminating our whole family.
Whether your child is 6 or 16, you've undoubtedly questioned his safety while he's away at school. While our society has yet to find a solution to the complex causes of school violence, we don't have to sit by and wait for the culture to get better. Instead, we can take these tragedies and use them to teach our children invaluable lessons in empathy and compassion.
Searching for Answers
There isn't any one thing that turns a child toward violence. However, the National School Safety Center lists specific characteristics of youths who have caused school-associated violent deaths. Those characteristics include being on the fringe of his/her peer group with few or no close friends; being bullied and/or intimidating peers or younger children; being depressed and/or experiencing significant mood swings.
In the wake of the school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, numerous theories about the causes of school violence have been bandied about. Wendy Murray Zoba is the author of Day of Reckoning (Brazos), an account of the Columbine shootings. Zoba says that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters, were socially disenfranchised and deeply resented being picked on by classmates. Whatever else went wrong in the lives of Harris and Klebold, as well as the other children who have perpetrated violence on their schools over the last few years, I can't help but wonder what might have happened if more of their fellow students had reached out to these hurting kids with care and compassion.
Thinking About the Other Guy
Helping kids have a sense of how other people feel and teaching them to reach out to people who are hurting is a powerful antidote to the violence in our culture. In her book Growing Compassionate Kids (Upper Room Books), author Jan Johnson says that compassionate children are able to put themselves in the shoes of another person and identify with that person's situation and motives. The challenge is helping kids, who are self-centered by nature, look outside of themselves and think about the other guy. Johnson explains that empathy requires imagination. "We must ask our kids to imagine how someone feels, how that person hurts, how desperate is that person's need for help," says Johnson.
Zoba remembers an incident involving her son Ben, when he was in middle school. "Ben came home and told us about this boy who was kind of 'scrawny' and getting picked on by a group of kids," says Zoba. "He felt bad for the boy but was a little afraid of getting involved. We told him that if he thought he could help the boy without getting either of them hurt, he should. So, the next time the boy was bullied, Ben stepped in. It made a huge difference in that boy's life and he and Ben became friends."
According to the book All Kids Are Our Kids (Jossey-Bass), by Peter Benson, children develop this ability to care about others by seeing it modeled and by putting caring into action. Benson notes, "[Caring] is rooted in the experience of being with people who choose to respond to human need with acts of caring and compassion." Modeling these traits for your children can and should be a daily occurrence. Find opportunities for your kids to see that people's thoughts and feelings matter. For example, when your child does something that upsets you, calmly explain why it hurts your feelings when he yells at you or that not calling when she's going to be home late causes you to worry about her safety. When an older sibling teases or picks on a younger sibling, calmly ask the older child how he would feel if someone picked on him that way. If you're watching TV with your child, point out the emotions of the characters in the show?"He looks sad," or "I bet she's excited." This helps your child start to see the outward cues to a person's inner emotions. You can also model compassion as you interact with others. Let your child see you helping an elderly person open a door or calming one of your other children. Encourage your child to look for signs that a classmate is lonely or feeling bad, then help her think of ways she can reach out in friendship.
Our children learn empathy and compassion by living out the Gospel that says: "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12). Benson emphasizes the role of service in helping children develop compassion. He says, "For caring to become a lasting characteristic, the practice of it ought to be in the range of once a week throughout childhood and adolescence. ? Service should be a mainstay of developmental experience, being highly valued and promoted in family, congregation, school, clubs, teams and organizations." Encourage your child to bake a batch of cookies and bring them to a local nursing home where you can visit with some of the residents, or take sandwiches to the local homeless shelter. Serve alongside your child at a soup kitchen or do outdoor service work together in your community. "Adopt" a child in another country and send that child letters from your children along with your monthly donation, or simply babysit with your child at a local organization that needs childcare.
As you do these acts of compassion, talk with your child about the people he's serving. Ask what it might feel like to have to leave your home and live in a nursing home, or what it might be like to be a child who doesn't get many new clothes. When your child makes an effort to be kind to his peers, praise his efforts and talk about the impact his actions can have on other kids. These kinds of conversations not only help your child step outside of his own experience, but teach him that his acts of compassion and care have a real impact on the lives of others.
Raising a compassionate child is one step toward tackling violence in our culture. As you work to develop empathy in your children, pray this prayer from Raising Compassionate Kids with them: Oh God, give us the wisdom to be able to imagine how we would like others to treat us. Give us insight into how others want to be treated. We may not be able to do that, but show us how to do it a little better. Amen.
As Christian parents, we can teach our children the greatest commandment: to love God with all that we are and our neighbors as ourselves. By encouraging them to live out that command through care, compassion, and kindness, we can help our children become an essential part of curing the epidemic of school violence.
6 Ways to Encourage Empathy
In Raising Compassionate Kids, author Jan Johnson offers ways parents can help build a caring foundation in their kids through common life experiences.
1. Give love to pets and plants. Small children can care for a pet or other animals and for the flowers that grow in the garden. Instead of crushing a spider, put it outside. Living things should not be hurt or mistreated.
2. Care for extended family. Check in on grandparents who live nearby and help them with shopping and chores. If grandparents aren't around, "adopt" an older friend.
3. Ask children questions. Help your kids evaluate solutions to problems by asking, "How would others feel about your solution?" When children's items are stolen or friends reject them, ask, "How do you feel about that? What would you like to see happen?"
4. Connect a circumstance with a personal acquaintance. When you and your children hear unjustly derisive comments about a person or group, bring up someone they know with a similar experience. If someone says that all poor people are lazy, think of someone you know who went through a difficult time, and received help from others until they were able to get back on their feet.
5. Venture beyond their world. On a summer missions trip, Johnson's teens interacted with peers from the inner city and learned about their family life. She says, "They felt great compassion and understood why these kids seemed angry a lot of the time. My kids also felt more grateful for their own family."
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
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